Sunday, May 17, 2020

My 2020 garden

Each spring when I start planting my garden I have an extended bout of mild panic. Nothing will grow because I'm bad at this, is basically my fear. I've wasted a ton of time and effort, and money.

And then, magically, plants start popping out of the ground. Their first little cotyledons, many of which still have the shell of the seed attached in the beginning, burst forth like, "Here I am!" Plants in the allium family send up straight shoots, so spindly and tiny that it's hard to believe it will ever be worth eating whatever it grows into.

This year my first planted crop, peas, was a total failure. Even pre-soaking my seeds to help with germination didn't help in the least. It was disheartening, mostly because I don't know what went wrong. Maybe it was too early? I planted again and the same thing happened, though I was absolutely certain that conditions were right for peas. There were marks in the soil, so perhaps birds and beasts and bugs ate most of the seeds? I have a few very spindly, very bug-eaten plants that grew up from my crop of garden peas and that's it.
Bush peas growing in a pot I
got for free because I saw
landscapers about to throw them away.

Thankfully, that's one of the reasons I plant such a variety of seeds. My main garden peas failed, but the rest are fine. I have a small teepee structure for the sugar snaps over in my herb garden, and those are doing just fine. My snow peas are popping up in the front yard, in one of the garden boxes, and those always produce so much that we honestly have trouble keeping up with eating them. Last, this year I ordered a Tom Thumb variety of shelling pea. It's a bush rather than a vine, and only grows about a foot tall. They look to be all that they were promised, though none has started producing just yet. They don't take up much room and don't need a trellis so they've been easy to fit in among other crops, most particularly my potatoes.

I also proved to myself that row covers are very much a worthwhile investment. Every crop that I planted under a cover is doing far better than the ones that didn't have that benefit. I'm still giving some leeway due to the fact that things are in different parts of the garden--perhaps getting a bit more sun, and thus having slightly warmer soil, was also a factor. But even with that it's plain to see that the plants started under covers are far healthier and more vibrant. They have less insect damage, and more of them germinated. I still have my tomatoes and peppers under row cover, though it's warm enough to do without. I want them to get a big bigger before they have to face the scary world.

I did two different versions of a row cover this year. One was fabric over PVC pipe stuck into the ground on either side of the row, with the fabric clamped to the pipe to keep it in place. It was fussy and difficult, mostly because I didn't have enough clamps so the fabric kept separating from the frame. And it took a fair bit of time and effort to set it up. We had quite a few windy days--part of the reason I wanted a cover in the first place!--and the lack of clamps meant that I'd have to go back out to re-set things most mornings.
Row covers in the hail. You can see the pre-made cover
held up far better than my flimsy homemade one.

The other was a row cover that I purchased on clearance from a local hardware store. I so, so wish that I'd bought a few more of them! For $6, that row cover has already paid for itself. I've so far used it in four sections of the garden but there were a couple of times when I wanted it to use it in two or more places at once. The only thing I don't like about it is that it has a built-in wire frame, so it can only be so big. Several of my rows are too wide for this cover.  It's also much shorter than my PVC cover, so if I wanted to use it for season extension into the fall and winter it would have to be for short crops only. My other cover is far more modifiable, so I could even use it around the corners if I needed to, which would be harder with the pre-made cover. All in all, I'm glad that I have both. I just need to get more clamps for the homemade one.

The last change I made to my garden this year was small, but I think it's increasing my growing space by a rather incredible amount. Last year I left pathways for myself along the entire lawn side of the garden. This year I mounded up soil in what was previously pathway just about a foot deep along the paving stones, planning to plant low growing plants (bush beans, vines) that it would be easy to step over to walk between rows. It felt like such a small change when I planned it but seeing how many more plants there are in my garden this year it turns out to have been a rather major change. The vines are my pumpkins, so instead of growing all over the middle of the garden this year they will grow out into the lawn, where no one cares how much space they take up.

The Kinder Garden

When I was gleefully looking through seed catalogs at the beginning of the year I noticed a trend of seeds for tiny plants, such as those small pea plants. An idea blossomed and I asked my older daughter if she wanted to have a garden of her own this year. She jumped at that chance (mostly, I think, because it will give her an excuse to play with the hose) and we happily picked out a bunch of seeds for her. We found the pea plants, a mini bell pepper variety, and a cherry tomato--all of which only grow to be about a foot tall and are suitable for containers. We also found mini bok choy, which should only grow to be about three inches tall, and Little Finger carrots--so named because they're about the size of an adult's finger when fully mature. My kids love to snack on carrots so those will be a godsend. I can tell them to pick those all they want, whenever they want, and we should be able to get several crops of them over the summer.
Most of the garden is planted and popping up! The bare
patches are waiting for tomatoes and peppers.

The last seed that was chosen? Well. My daughter took the seed catalog to look through all of the pictures and then told me, very seriously, that she wanted one more seed for her garden. A turnip variety. Why did she want it? Maybe her tastes are maturing. Or maybe it's because they've got purple tops. Or maybe it's the fact that the little girl in the photo, about the same age as my daughter, was holding a turnip bigger than her head. That's right, we ordered a turnip variety that can grow to the same size as a pumpkin.

I can't say I blame her for her choice. I ordered an onion variety that commonly grows to about 5 lbs. so....

The Other Kinder Garden

Early this year, anxious to get outside and work on growing things, I offered to be the parent volunteer in charge of the school garden that the Munchkin's elementary. I started coordinating with interested teachers, planning out when we'd clear out plants and what we'd plant. And then this virus began ripping through our community and schools were closed. School grounds were closed.

Now, even worse, there is hunger. Food is being thrown away even as people go hungry because supply and demand are off kilter. Food banks are desperate, people are becoming desperate. The price of food is rising, which will lead to even more hunger.

My kid's school is a Title 1 school. In other words, it's a high poverty school, with much of the population receiving free breakfast and lunch. Many families go home with bags of food on Fridays to help see them through the weekend. At least one student in each class has experienced homelessness. There was need even before the pandemic caused a massive, instant recession and a catastrophic wave of unemployment. I kept looking at the headlines and the articles, then working in my own garden and thinking that there must be something I could do to help.

There is. I emailed the principal of the school and asked if I could please work on the school garden, by myself, to grow food for needy families in the area? I let her know that I'm perfectly willing to donate seeds, time, or whatever else this garden needs. And I received a yes! Even better, she mentioned this plan at a staff meeting and several teachers mentioned that they are willing to help. And best of all, someone connected with the school is on the local food bank's board, so I will have an easy way to distribute whatever food we grow to people who need it. !!!! This is a pretty incredible feeling, so much better than the hopelessness and despair that spawned my idea in the first place.

Bearded iris

The original school garden was going to be something for kids. It would grow food, yes, but that was going to be a secondary consideration after the kids' learning. Now, growing food is the name of the game. I'm able to work on maximizing food production in the garden boxes so that we can get as many pounds of food to the food bank as possible. I'll let you know how that goes when we see what results we get. Right now I can just say that if this garden matches my enthusiasm then we'll be sending many hundreds of pounds of food to help people in the community.

What am I growing this year?

Beans - Six different kinds
Peas - sugar, snap, and garden
Potatoes - Yukon gold and German butterball
Carrots - Four varieties
Turnips - The giant ones and a Japanese variety that looks like it will be my first major harvest (soon)
Zucchini
Pumpkins
Chard
Kale
Spinach
Lettuce
Corn - A different variety this year; it should be purple, and good for grinding into meal
Onions
Leeks
Tomatoes - Five varieties, plus I'm on the lookout for some paste tomatoes since my little girl
                  dumped out my seed packet of them before I got a chance to plant any
Anaheim peppers
Mini bell peppers
Bok choy
Sunflowers

Oh, is that all?

This year I also got two new blueberry bushes. The raspberries we planted last year filled in their garden boxes beautifully and are already starting to set fruit. I got more strawberries, though I'm still not expecting a big harvest of them for a few more years, and we got a grape vine, for which my enterprising spouse built a beautiful trellis. It won't produce any grapes until next year at the earliest, but as always with fruit it's more of a long-term investment.
Raspberries. We might get enough for my family's
wants this year. Maybe. Probably not.

For Christmas we ordered my brother-in-law a lion's mane mushroom kit and, while I was at it, I also ordered us a shiitake mushroom kit and spores for red wine cap mushrooms. The latter grow on wood chips and, thanks to last year's leftovers from building the garden, that's something we have in abundance. I still need to spread the spores but we should be harvesting our own mushrooms (which can grow to be 10 inches across!) for at least a few years.

I'm ridiculously proud of this
picture my kid took.
In addition to all of this, I'm continuing to plant more flowers and other interesting plants. I'm particularly interested in planting more natives to help out birds and bugs. I had a large list of plants I wanted to buy but then the pandemic hit and the rest of the world started gardening also. I'm unsure whether I want to try to get as many plants as I can this year, or wait and go for them next year when I've had more time to think about placement, and perhaps there won't be such a shortage of available plants. Perhaps, since I'm also working on the school's garden, I will hold off on many of them. The ones I did get to this year are: a honeysuckle (native variety, good for bugs and hummingbirds), a hydrangea, and a fine tooth penstemon (another native that's good for pollinators and birds). We planted more herbs (marshmallow, borage, horehound) and more wildflowers.

This year was going to be the year that we put in a greenhouse and rain barrels. I'm not sure how much of that is on hold, but I'm still hopeful that it will get done this year. We have a long, long way to go before things start feeling "right", in so many ways. And I know that a garden is always a work in progress, but each year I'm happier with how beautiful and alive my yard is.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

During the pandemic

It's very strange how life is terrifying, exciting, and cripplingly boring all at once. I find myself with hours of time in which I do nothing useful, productive, or even good for myself, even while I seem to have no time to myself ever because OH MY GOD KIDS YOU'RE KILLING ME. With almost no social outlets my kids end up demanding my attention for ALL of the roughly 847 hours each day that they're awake. I have to teach the older one during the younger one's nap because there's no school, which means that I get no real breaks. I'm On all day being Mom--the carrier of all burdens, the receiver of anger and despair that come from having their world upended without the understanding that adults have. My younger one has taken to saying, "I need you, Mommy," as she holds out a grasping hand for me. I hear that dozens of times each day: "I need you, Mommy." Then they finally, finally go to sleep and...nothing. I seem to have exhausted every possible thing that I want to do. I'm weary, mentally worn out.
Learning to count by tens from a non-decade number.
This is how I now spend what was formerly my free time.

I know it's not just me. This ennui is afflicting vast swathes of the country, the world, right now. And in fact, it's such an amazing privilege to be so afflicted. No one in my house has lost a job. I'm not worried about being evicted, or where my next meal will come from. I'm not in the hospital, or on tenterhooks because loved ones are ill. No one in my house is an "essential" worker, going out every day risking their life to help others. We're not recently retired and staring at our retirement account with dismay and fear, wondering what lies ahead. I don't even have to try juggling full time work with teaching and monitoring my kids.

So, I know that whining is a privilege. Being bored is a privilege. And yet, everyone is going through pain right now and that shouldn't be dismissed either. The pain of staying at home, of enduring all of this so that we do not create a greater public risk, is something I'm willing to endure. No one on earth can make me say I do it "happily", though. Nor should we be forced to pretend it's okay. It's not. Nothing is. Not for any of us. We are all in pain. We're all feeling uncertain. Please bear that in mind when things start to get divisive, so that you can react with compassion rather than disdain.

My one lockdown relief has been to go and see my mother when I can. This is, by necessity, not a frequent occurrence. There have been weeks at a time when I haven't been able to see her at all. Video calls are confusing to her, and while she seems to enjoy my voice over the phone she doesn't verbally respond and it's awkward knowing that a caregiver is sitting there holding the phone, trying to keep her attention on the fact that I've called her, isn't that lovely! Oh don't worry, she's smiling! She's smiling to hear your voice!

Now I'm able to view her through glass like a zoo animal, to call so that I can talk to her with a wall between us. And even that is a privilege, because she's there at all. Due to many factors hers is one of the few care facilities in the Seattle are that hasn't had a single case of COVID-19. I was worried in the beginning, and I still am, that it would get to them somehow. So far, thankfully, no. As this pandemic plays out, especially as places open up and cases grow again, I doubt they will be able to keep it out forever but I'm grateful for this time we have. I was worried what the isolation would do to my mom but my semi-regular visits (with my kids playing around the small courtyard behind me) perk her up and seem to keep her grounded. It could have been so much worse. I know that, and I'm thankful every day that she's still there, that the isolation or the virus haven't gotten to her.

And so I find myself on the couch, surfing through what thing I can make next out of sourdough because I too am out of yeast and can't find more. (Admittedly, it's been over 2 weeks since we went to the store, so they might have been able to re-stock by now?) We've cleaned out and reorganized what we're going to clean and organize for now. I've gone through our supplies of food many times to figure out how many iterations of meals I can make out of it before we have to go to the store next, and how to keep my kids from rebelling because it's not food they want. To dole out the treats in an appropriate fashion to keep morale up without running out of those treats before we can get or make more. I've become bored by reading, with an attention span that of a gnat so the pile of books I've got that I was so excited to read sits there almost untouched. I can't. I just can't right now. It's either too happy or too depressing. Too real or not real enough.

I keep exercising, yes. It helps a bit. Not as much as one would hope, but a bit. Getting out for walks, runs, and bike rides. Lifting weights. Doing yoga. It gives me a small boost and helps keep me sane, keeps me from getting truly Depressed. But it can't quite calm the anxiety that's always there. I don't think I'm alone in that. It's manifesting in so many ways for so many people: eating too much, doing too much, doing nothing at all. Drinking too much is becoming a major problem, which is thankfully one path I haven't taken. I don't drink more than a few times a year socially, but a few times I've thought to myself that maybe today would be a good day to open a bottle of wine. I haven't, though, because it feels too much like drinking out of despair, when I know it won't actually make anything better. So I don't.

I've started making a rag rug out of an old flannel sheet that the dog ripped up. My grandmother would be so proud. I remember her making them in the evenings when she was watching TV. No time like extreme boredom to pull out those old fashioned skills and learn something new, right? Don't mind me channeling my anxiety over here by doing something seemingly useful that is also mindless and unnecessary. We don't need a rug. But it's something to do, something that feels valuable. Maybe that's part of why these rugs were so popular during the Depression? It gives your hands something to do without needing to really think hard about it, and adds a bit of comfort to your life when it's desperately needed. Will this rug be a work of art? Absolutely not. But will it keep my husband a bit more comfortable on winter mornings so he won't have to put bed-warmed feet onto a cold wood floor first thing every morning? Yes. Will that keep the rug safely hidden out of sight in the bedroom, so friends and family won't be forced into falsely admiring it? Also yes.
Anxiety rug in its infancy.

When my brother-in-law first heard about this project he assumed that I was just going to throw the sheet on the floor and call it a rug. Then he found out there was a method to my madness and laughingly confessed that he gave me far too little credit. "What is this, Soviet Russia? Is rug now!" I took the scraps I had at the end of braiding and handed them over in a bundle. "And here's a rug for you." I'll never let this joke die, and it's weird to think of how we'll laugh about it many years from now as one of our pandemic stories. Will we remember this time at all fondly? All the family togetherness? There have certainly been fun moments and enjoyable evenings. We've had family movie nights and family walks. We've gotten to know all the prettiest gardens in our neighborhood, to discuss the names of plants, trees, and birds so that even the two-year-old can accurately point out tulips and crows. The adults in our household are playing a turn-based computer game together, increasing the difficulty as we go. My siblings, a cousin, and I have set up a regular weekly board game over text. There have been funny movies and yes, I did even watch Tiger Kings just to see what all the fuss was about.

So it's not all bad. I brought out an old friend and started playing my violin again. I haven't had or made the time in far too long, except on a few occasions to play for my mom. Now I'm playing just for myself and it's glorious. I also have the garden, which is starting to pop up. Perennials that I planted last year are bigger and more beautiful. With fewer planes flying it's easier to stand on my back porch and listen to all the birds, who seem especially active this year. (Maybe that's just wishful thinking.)

But it's always, always got a veil of sadness over it. I miss my friends. As much as I love seeing my siblings over video chats, I miss them too. I want to give ALL the hugs, especially to my mom. It's hard to know that we don't have much time left with her and this is stealing some of that in a very real way. She doesn't always understand my words but she always, always knows who I am when I hug her.

And maybe that is the worst part, the reason for the collective funk. We won't be able to get this time with friends and family back--the missed visits, the birthdays, the laughter and hugs we would have shared. We had planned to go to a wedding in Fairbanks this summer and see friends, some of whom we haven't seen in person since we moved away what feels like forever ago. We were going to make stops to see family, spend time with cousins and great-grandparents. Will we even get to anymore? We still need to wait and see how this is going to shape up, if more lockdowns will happen as cases spike again. How many times will we be forced to miss out on important moments with friends and family? How many of our friends and family will still be there on the other side of this? There's so much uncertainty, and we can't even be there for each other except virtually. Which feels like no real way at all, when it comes down to it. That's not how humans were meant to communicate. We're missing those moments of humanity that bring us together. Life is precious. What do we do when we need to subvert our humanity to preserve lives? We have to kill part of ourselves for the greater good. It hurts. It hurts so much, but the alternatives are worse.

The twin to my sadness is anger. I'm so pissed that so many people are proving to be incredibly selfish. This selfishness has become our national identity. I'm so fed up with it. I'm so tired of trying to push back against it. I'm just so tired of it. I can't even work up a good rage because it's too exhausting. I have too much else draining my energy right now, as do most of us. But I'm still angry, and I can't seem to forgive or explain away the selfishness of my countrymen. Just as I can't say I'm happily sheltering in place, I can't say that I sympathize with the people who just want to open things up without understanding even the first thing about this illness, about the impact their selfishness is having on others. I know much of it comes from a place of (particularly economic) uncertainty. But there is a time when that is not a good enough excuse and this is it, when so many people are dying and when so many others are making heroic sacrifices to save who they can. To be selfish in the midst of a pandemic is to be the ultimate fool. My country is run by fools. We're driven by fools, who have become the loudest (if far from the largest) demographic.

I know that this is just the start. We will likely look back at our life from early lockdown and think of how lucky we were, how we didn't know just how immensely privileged we were. I hope I'm wrong about that, but the news and history are telling me that I'm not. The coming year, or more, will not be easy by any means. We're all going to need to dig deep and find reserves we never knew we had, to endure things we never contemplated. There will be a Before and After. We will be different people. But even then, I can't wait to meet you, my friends and family, all over again. To give you the hugs we've missed out on and celebrate the magnificence that is each of you. Life is precious. You are precious to me. In the meantime, we're here in our quarantine still celebrating the things that matter most. The new babies we haven't gotten to meet yet, the birthdays of people we love, wedding anniversaries and sobriety anniversaries and other happy news of various kinds. We will celebrate in a big way when we can.

Stay safe. Stay strong. Stay well. We miss you.



Edit: I wrote this piece and then, before getting a chance to publish it, received an email that one of the staff at my mom's facility tested positive for COVID-19. So I sit here with an issue Schroedinger would love: we have to assume that everyone there is afflicted and contagious until proven otherwise. My mom both is and is not in imminent peril. I don't know what more to say about this except that my waiting has become just a little bit harder.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What to do in the face of a pandemic

Later to the game than many people would like, the WHO finally admitted that the novel coronavirus that's wreaking havoc on the world is a pandemic. It's official. Is now the time to start panicking?

I'm kidding, of course. It's never the right time to panic. However, if you're not already prepared for this, if you're lucky enough that it hasn't affected you very much yet, this is the time to prepare. This virus is spreading exponentially and that is a big part of why it's so scary. (That and the fact that it's 10 times more lethal than the flu, and roughly 10-20% of all cases require hospitalization which can overwhelm the healthcare system.) Cases will start small in number but quickly ramp up. For reference, it was only about three weeks ago when Italy had merely a handful of cases. Now they're at almost 900 people dead and the entire country is in lockdown.

And yes, the flu kills more people in total each year than this has. However, this virus is brand new. It's only infected somewhat over 100,000 people so far that we know of, though that number is growing rapidly. (By the time I publish this all of my numbers will be way off. That's how exponential growth works.) It hasn't been around for very long and already it's managed to kill over 4600 people. And it's just starting. Life is going to be very different for a while because of this.

For anyone thinking that it's just something that affects the elderly or those who are already sick anyway, have some compassion. Do you not know anyone who falls into an affected group? Or are you really just that selfish?

For the record, it's not just the elderly who are impacted. They are mostly who die from it, but many people at a variety of ages have been hospitalized with severe symptoms. Healthcare workers are also greatly affected in so. many. ways. An event such as this takes both a mental and physical toll, and more than a few healthcare workers have given their lives trying to save others. If we can do anything to make this less atrocious on them, please lets do that.

So, what can each of us do? I know that you've heard of washing your hands, and hand sanitizer is the hot accessory right now. If you don't already do these things, you might as well skip the rest.

But people like to have more concrete actions to take in the face of scary things. It's what we do. I know there are a lot of jokes about toilet paper forts and the fact that bottled water flew off the shelves as fast as hand sanitizer. I think those are symptoms of the fact that in our society being prepared for bad things to happen has been equated with being a Doomsday Prepper, and a nutcase. It's not fair to lump all preparations together that way, and in the face of real disasters people often don't know what they'll really need. It leaves us all unprepared and worse off as a group.

Stock up on Groceries Before it's too Widespread

I managed to get to Costco for our big quarterly stock up precisely one day before the news hit about community transmission in WA and all hell broke loose. This was due to a combination of both having kept tabs on the news and seen what was coming, and blind luck.

I've made two much smaller grocery runs since then to re-stock fresh foods (while I still can, in case we have to quarantine) and I know we have at least a month's worth of food on hand. I made a giant list of all the meals that we can make, some of which we have enough of to make 2-4 times, and it should see us through the worst of this outbreak. Hopefully. If we have to go for more than a month the kids are going to hate everything but we'll all be fed.

I'm not going to tell you precisely what to stock up on because not everyone eats the same way. A gluten free person isn't going to buy 40 lbs of flour like I did. (I've been making my own sourdough bread, yum!) But there are a few generalities that can be made.

Make sure you have easy things to make. Cans of soup, frozen foods. If you get sick you may still need or want to eat but not have the energy to cook. Other people in your house may need or want to eat but not want to cook or be able to. If you have kids, the kids are still going to need to be fed. Make sure that everyone can eat for at least a few days with a reasonable degree of healthfulness without anyone really needing to work at cooking.

Shelf stable items like flour, rice, pasta, canned foods, jarred foods, and beans will last a long, long time. Just make sure you're actually going to eat them. Now is maybe not the time to buy wild ingredients to try new recipes. If you want to experiment, make recipes that will utilize ingredients you'd want on hand anyway.

In that vein, plan for meals that use the same ingredients over and over. We have a ton of carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions. I'm not worried that they'll go bad because we use and eat them so much. I'm actually worried that we'll run out!

Next, make sure there are treats. This situation is tough on everyone. Routines are disrupted, people are stressed. Having a few things to give yourself something you really enjoy and look forward to will make it seem less painful. I include coffee and tea in this category. You'd better believe we stocked up on those. We also have everything we need to do an immoderate amount of baking with the kids. (Scones have been requested.) This will both distract everyone, be an enjoyable way to pass the time, and give us something to look forward to.

I've done a similar thing with comfort foods, ensuring we have enough to make them 1-2 times each week. Lentil soup goes down much easier for the kids when they know we'll make mac and cheese or breakfast for dinner tomorrow.

Don't forget your pets. They'll need enough food, treats, and litter to see them through this too.

Don't forget to eat things up based on what will go bad. Fresh fruits and veggies first, then move onto the root vegetables, then canned or frozen items.

Social Distancing

One of the best measures most of us can take is social distancing. We're seeing this already here in Seattle, with basically anyone who can working from home. I'm not the only one hoping that this becomes a lasting change. (Think of the time and emissions saved! The gas money! The work travel!) No amount of hand washing, sanitizing, and no mask will help you more than simply staying away from people who might be infected.

However, not everyone has this privilege and it's important to remember them too. Be extra kind. It's unimaginably difficult to go to work every day knowing that it could make you sick, but still needing that paycheck. Hourly workers are also, on average, more likely to have worse health insurance (or no insurance) and to be less able to afford hospitalization. So seriously, be kind.
"I heard someone might get sick
and I'm here for the snuggles.
Snuggles fix everything."

We had kept our daughter in school until today, when they closed all Seattle public schools. I know many people chose to preemptively remove their kids from school and that is also a legitimate choice. For us, having her in school learning what she could was more important. For others, particularly those with immunocompromised family members in the home, the calculation will probably be different.

In case you think that it might be easy for me to suggest social distancing because we've got all this privilege to afford stocking up on food and working from home, please keep in mind that my mother is in an eldercare facility. I've only been intermittently able to visit her as the facility goes in and out of lockdown due to concerns over this illness. It's adding stress to an already stressful time so please believe me when I say that I don't advocate for these measures lightly. They're enforcing social distancing and it's absolutely the right move under the circumstances.

Prepare to Be Sick

The likelihood is that most of us will get sick with this virus at some point. And most of us--around 80-90%--will not need hospitalization. (I refuse to say that we'll get it mildly, since everything from barely showing symptoms to pneumonia has been lumped under "mild to moderate"--as long as you don't need to be hospitalized. I don't think most of us consider pneumonia "mild", however.) So preparing as if you will get sick is not a terrible idea. Get laundry and other essential chores done preemptively. Keep some medicine on hand in case of fevers, and take your vitamins if you have them. Grab a bag of epsom salts if you still need to go to the store, to help with achy muscles.

Since this particular virus isn't hitting children nearly as hard (thank goodness), I'm preparing as if all adults in our house will get sick at the same time but the kids will still mostly be fine. If you're a parent, you know it's just awful when you're sick and the kids are bouncing around. Have activities for them to do and talk with them, beforehand, about what to do if you're sick. Even if you're not in a high risk group, make sure your kids know how to call emergency services if needed and under what circumstances they're allowed to do so. (This is good information for them to have in general.)

Pack a hospital bag. Even if you're not in a high risk group there is a chance that you will need to be hospitalized for this. Or to seek care. If the hospitals and urgent care centers are overwhelmed then you might have a very long wait. Pack snacks and things to do, things to read. An extra charging cable for your electronics. A change of clothes and even a pair of pajamas. A copy of your insurance card, if possible. And anything else you might need for a sudden stay in the hospital or a long wait at urgent care.

Plan for Boredom and Stress

Introverts of the world, unite! This is your moment to shine!

For everyone else, please keep in mind that two weeks, or more, can seem like a very. long. time. to be at home, or mostly at home. Have board games and card games on hand. Books. TV shows and movies you've been wanting to watch. Video games, both old and new. And make sure your kids, if you have them, have all of these things too.

If you're feeling stressed out, one of the best ways to help yourself is to work out. Yoga doesn't require you to go anywhere (here's a favorite one of mine). Going for a solo bike ride or walk or run can be soothing, as can gardening. We made a home gym in our basement mostly to avoid paying gym fees (okay, and because I wouldn't work out as regularly if I had to go somewhere to do it) which has been helping so much in this case. That part of our routine, at least, can stay the same.

Taking this guy for a walk is
still a good idea.

This might also be a good time to tackle some house projects. We've been meaning to clear out and reorganize our basement storage room, which still had paint and tools left by the previous owners, so guess what we'll be doing over the next few weeks? It's not glamorous but it does need to get done and the satisfaction we'll get from it will help stave off any feelings of being 'stuck' at home. Go ahead and Marie Kondo the shit out of your belongings. Hang up the painting that you've been meaning to for six years. Clean out the attic and box up all your grown kids' things to give to them when you get a chance. Do something productive with your time, as long as you're not sick.

If you're sick then just hole up and sleep or watch TV. It's okay to rest too and get zero things accomplished if that's what you need. You do you.

Help Your Community

In my area, Bloodworks Northwest has put an urgent call out for people to donate blood if at all possible. Just because there's a virus going on doesn't mean that there aren't still other emergencies happening, and having people self-isolating means fewer people are donating. (Although hopefully it also means fewer car crashes too.) If you don't live in the PNW, you can get ahead of things by donating locally before it becomes urgent.

Doctors Without Borders is also working on the front lines in the hardest hit areas. Please consider donating to support them.

Food banks and homeless shelters are going to urgently need funds to help care for the neediest in our communities. The homeless population is likely to be very hard hit by this, and people who are already on the edge of not being able to meet their expenses will be severely impacted by any time off work. Even if there is some sort of bailout that miraculously helps the poorest rather than the richest, it will almost certainly take a while and be far less than is needed. Please consider making a donation to them as well.

Check in with elderly neighbors. Our next door neighbor is an elderly lady living alone. We have a good, friendly relationship with her so I let her know that if she needs anything we're here to help. She's not helpless and she does have a daughter nearby, but having more people to check on her won't hurt anything. If she does get sick I'll be much more comfortable knowing that she knows she can call on us.

There have also been distressing reports--a lot of them, too many--of racist attacks. Asian restaurants have been avoided because people think they'll get coronavirus, and at least one man has been attacked for being Asian.  Please be extra mindful of your Asian neighbors (particularly in a place like Seattle, with a large Asian population) and, obviously, step in if you see racism happening. Shut down comments by friends and family who might try to blame the Chinese for this happening. It's unhelpful and not okay. No one person or group is to blame for this and we are all in it together.

Economic Impacts

In addition to everything else going on, this is going to be a really rough time financially for many people. If you do need to shop or go out, please go to small businesses. If you want them to still be around when this is over they will need your support all the way through.

I don't know what's going to happen when all is said and done (oh, for a magic crystal ball!) but it does seem likely that this is going to cause a recession. I've heard any number of variations on the "stocks are on sale!" theme, but that blithely ignores the pain that a recession is going to inflict on many, many people. The stock market is not the same as the economy, and while it might be "on sale" that really only matters if you have enough money to invest in it. Retirees will be hurt, especially the recently retired, and people who are already hurting are just going to be hurt more.

If you are in a relatively good position, now is the time to either build or plump up your emergency fund. Really, the time to do that was a couple of years ago, but doing it now is better than nothing. Ideally you want to have 3-6 months of living expenses available. But there's ideal and then there's reality. Truthfully, any amount saved up for emergencies is wonderful. Do it please.

Here's the toughest part of the economic side for me: I want to help the hourly workers who are inevitably going to be struggling after this. I want to help the small businesses that we enjoy. But social distancing means that I will not be patronizing them for a while. Getting the people who work there and myself sick doesn't help anyone in the long run. However, I sincerely hope that those businesses are back at it as soon as they can so I can be their customer again as soon as I'm able. In the meantime I'm going to poke and prod the politicians of this country to do more to support people and small businesses. Please do the same.

What Else?

This is, if nothing else, an interesting start to the new decade. This is already big enough that it will have ripple effects at least a few years into the future. How will it change the political landscape in this election year? How will the stock market crashing change things? Will this virus have any long-term health impacts on the people who contract it? No one knows! It's interesting in part because this moment has the potential for rapid change. The future we expected and thought we could rely on at the start of the year, just two and a half months ago, is not what we can expect now. There are many possibilities, many moments for the shape of the world to change.

There have been many moments just in the last two weeks when my life has changed quite rapidly. Not in flashy ways, but still major shifts. I had a fifteen minute time period today in which the course of this week, this month, were suddenly different. So many small and big things changed. School cancelled. New rules at my mom's facility that allow me to visit her once more for short periods. People to contact, plans to be made or changed. It's hard for me to take life as it comes because I like to plan, but since so much is out of my control now I can only roll with the punches and try to take moments where I can to process it all. Que sera sera. I've done what I can, the rest is out of my hands.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

My favorite books from the last...whenever

It's been a long time, too long, since I wrote a post about what I've been reading. I love giving book recommendations, and sharing books with others. In fact, there are few delights better than recommending or loaning a book to someone and having them tell me that they, too, loved it. I gave a small stack of books to a friend who needed something light, because life was overwhelming, and when she gave them back she said they were just what she needed. Honestly, that made my whole week better.

I read most everything, depending on how I'm feeling. Unfortunately I haven't really been into crime, true crime, thrillers, or horror in the past couple of years. Life has just been too heavy to read about those things. I've read a couple of true crime books but they're not on my best of list because, while good, I'm still just not feeling it. There's already too much death and mayhem in real life. I'm living with death every day as I care for my mother, who has been in hospice since early fall. Instead, I've got a few book recommendations for books about grieving, grief, and the elderly.

When that gets to be too much, however, and when I need life, I turn to gardening books. And YA. And fantasy. Not nearly enough fantasy. (But hey, I've read the whole Wheel of Time series so give a girl a break.)

Without further ado, here are my favorite books that I've read in the past few years.

Grief, grieving, and dying

Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I've loved, by Kate Bowler.

The author for this book is a professor of Divinity at Duke University. She penned a book about the prosperity gospel and opens candidly with the fact that, though she herself was not really part of any prosperity gospel churches, in many ways it's so infectious that she found herself buying into some of the ideas. Everything happens for a reason. If you just pray hard enough, God will make everything better! God only does bad things to bad people, so repent and you'll be healed! She explains that for the sick and the downtrodden, this message is so seductive that it can block out all others.

And then she got cancer. In her mid-thirties, after months of debilitating stomach pain that was passed off by doctors as either reflux or psychosomatic she finally convinced someone to give her a CT scan that revealed stage IV colon cancer--"the second least-sexy cancer." And she was left wondering, questioning everything. Was there a reason? Was there a loving God out there who'd taken her in the prime and, as she thought, killed her? What about her toddler son, her husband? What did they do to deserve this?

I don't, as a general rule, like books about religion or that talk overtly about religion. They tend to get not just boring but prosy and self-righteous. Look at me, how much faith I have! Ugh. This one, I promise you, was not like that. She is a person of faith who manages to appreciate many flavors of Christian in her beliefs but also to poke fun at the parts which, really, should be made fun of. And if you've ever known grief you will be familiar with the questions she asked herself, the constant why? that you are left with, without any answers, which she handles it in a particularly sarcastic way that also resonated with me. The platitudes that people repeat endlessly when you or a loved one has died, or is dying and slowly going through painful hell. Even the non-religious will fall back on them. Everything happens for a reason, right? "Sometimes I want every know-it-all to send me a note when they face the grisly specter of death, and I'll send them a cat poster that says HANG IN THERE!" Having grown up Episcopalian, I genuinely laughed into an empty room at the furious, emphatic words, "Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!" You can't Good News! away pain and suffering, but everyone tries to help you plaster over them as if they don't exist. Sometimes, there is a season to lean into them, to accept that they are part of life. We get so caught up in the idea of being optimistic that we forget bad things still happen.

But sometimes there are moment of peace, even joy, and she focuses on that just as much. "I think the same thoughts over and over again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard." Yes.


The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4, by Hendrik Groen

"I hate old people," is how this book about living in an eldercare facility begins. He mocks the habits of the elderly, needing soft foods and complaining about everything and playing Bingo. All things that he does himself, to one degree or another. This book made me laugh out loud and managed to never lose its sweetness as he discusses real issues, such as problems the elderly face due to cuts in their benefits. (It's set in the Netherlands.) Or problems having to do with the fact that it's hard to get anywhere when you're old, even if your mobility is all right, simply because it takes forever. Or, worst of all, the fact that your friends keep getting sicker and dying. It was laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, sad, sweet, and an absolute gem of a book. I'm certain that I enjoyed it even more since I take near-daily trips to an eldercare facility and get to see much of this stuff happening in real time (little old lady fights are real) but I'm certain that this book would be fun to read for just about everyone.


Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

This was one of those books that was the right book to read at the right time. I'd had several people recommend it to me because of my mother. It gives an overview of the care of the sick and the elderly, and what matters most to people when they know they're dying. It goes over palliative and hospice care, which was incredibly helpful as I was beginning the process of having my mother enter hospice. I knew what to expect. And, really, the biggest thing it gave me was peace of mind. I'm doing the right things. I'm helping my mother in the best ways possible. She may never know what I'm doing for her but I will, and I want to do my best. It also helped me think about what I would like at the end of my life in a calm and rational way. We are all mortal. We will all die. With any luck, each of us will have loved ones around to help us at the end, doing their best to comfort and show their love.


Gardening and Nature

Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway

This book helped me sooo much when I was planning out our garden last year. I actually read most of it over the summer in fits and starts because it was dense and made me want to do things right now. So I'd read a bit, then go out in my garden and play for a bit.

Not all of it is applicable to urban gardeners. There are chapters that talk about putting in ponds and caring for wetlands and creating your own forest. Um, yeah. Beautiful concepts to read about, but they don't really help me. But they're not meant to. This is a generalist's overview of permaculture to get you started. And if you're thinking that you don't want to grow vegetables, stop right there. Very little of this was about how to grow vegetables and fruits. Most of the book was about developing an ecosystem, planting things in such ways that they will help and sustain each other with minimal or no outside inputs. It's about creating systems, not gardens, and doing them in both efficient (in terms of space, water, other resources including time) and in life-building ways. I'm pretty sure I'll be using this book as a reference for the rest of my life.


Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon

This book...I actually hated it in many ways. Seriously. This guy is the Grumpy Grandpa of PNW gardening. One review on Goodreads complained, "He takes all the fun out of gardening!" and I couldn't agree more. The author is entirely certain that there is one right way to garden and it is his way. He references what other people and other schools of thought might say in only the most dismissive ways. I kept rolling my eyes. He's very certain that he can't possibly learn something from anyone else about how to garden. He knows it all, and we should all only be listening to him the end. Oh, and don't forget to fertilize but only if you use my special blend that I talk about nonstop!

So, why am I still recommending this book? Because I actually did get a lot of good ideas out of it. For instance, he talks about the fact that starting seeds indoors has become a big business but it can, actually, hurt your plants and set you back. By moving and disturbing the root systems the plants won't grow as effectively for quite a while after you transplant them, thus losing all or most of the head start you thought you were getting. So I tried it. Last year, because we finished the new garden so late in the spring, I direct seeded almost all of my plants. And he was right, they did so much better and were so much healthier than when I've started things indoors in the past. Especially my winter squashes. So I'm going to continue this practice, only starting indoors the things that need too long of a growing season (tomatoes) to wait until the weather turns.

There was other great advice in there, but I'll leave that for you to read about.


Nature's Best Hope by Douglas Tallamy

This book was, I will admit, a bit prosy. It can be forgiven, however, because the author is so earnest and so determined to change the way people think about nature. "The message I have tried to convey in this book is that, whether we like nature or not, none of us will be able to live for long in a world without it." We are not, he reminds us all, separate from our ecosystem. We need nature for literally everything including our own lives. We've parceled it out and sold it and told ourselves that we own it. But we need to be better stewards of our home, because it is our home. It's the one we share with all known life in the universe. We've taken the fun parts of ownership, now it's time for us to be responsible.

This is probably the manifesto for ripping up at least part of your lawn and planting it instead with native plants. And yes, he wants us all to plant native plants anywhere and everywhere. Vegetables and ornamentals are fine (as long as they're not invasive, which many ornamentals are) but to really give our ecosystems a boost we need to return some of the plants that have defined each of our ecosystems for thousands of years. Those are the plants that insects depend upon, and they are the base of our food web. Without insects we don't have birds and most rodents. The entire food chain falls apart. Which is what we're seeing. There are fewer insects, fewer birds. Fewer of basically every living thing except humans and our food.  It's time for us to change that. I know it's helping me to think much harder about what I'm going to plant on my property.

If you want a resource to get started right away, rather than reading this whole book, here is a website dedicated to finding native plants for your zip code which will also tell you how many species of butterflies and moths it supports. This is crucial because caterpillars are what most birds need for their young. Supporting butterflies is one of the best ways to also support birds.


The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

This book was not actually as depressing as basically every news article about it declared it to be. Was it sad? Yep. Reading about the changing world that we're all creating, which my kids and all the other kids out there will inherit, made me really sad. Did it still leave room for hope? Emphatically yes. We can still change things. We are not fated to destroy ourselves. There is so much beauty still in the world. We don't have to sacrifice that, and we can add to it. We just need to put in the hard work to do these things collectively. We need to work together on a problem that affects all of us already. He lays out the predictions and models because we need to know what's really at stake or we will ignore it, as we have since it was first brought up. We can't do that anymore. There's no time left. We need to act in big ways and we need to act now. But we can still act.


General Fiction

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

I'll be honest, this book has one of the most brutal openings I've ever read. Not because it's particularly violent or bloody. It isn't. But it's begins with a Lithuanian family being taken by Stalin's secret police in 1941. They have 20 minutes to pack before being carted off to Siberia. Their crime? Well, the teenage daughter (from whose perspective the book is written) doesn't know. There were signs that something was up but she was too focused on herself to really notice anything else. And now here they are, being packed up and shipped off in a cattle car full of people.

The author wrote this in such a way that you can't not feel for the family, for the people that these sorts of events actually happened to. And thankfully, she manages to write about some of the atrocities in a way where you feel for them, but you haven't gotten particularly attached to the characters. Some things might be just too horrific to imagine them closely, and she manages to write about them without giving details that would only make you feel wretched. And she ends the book with hope, despite the topic.

I'm anxious now to read the rest of her books.


The Three Dark Crowns quadrilogy, by Kendare Blake

There is an island shrouded in mist. The mist protects the island and its inhabitants from the outside world, because most eyes will bounce off and never notice it's there. Only a few privileged Mainlanders are allowed to come and trade with the island's inhabitants.
Sorry, I really am not a professional photographer. Or even
good at it in an amateur way.

This island is ruled by a Queen and her council. When the Queen's reign is ending she bears triplets, always daughters, and when they are weaned she sails off to the Mainland never to be seen again. Her daughters are raised by three different factions on the island depending on their talent: Naturalist, Elemental, or Poisoner. They are raised to hate each other. When they're sixteen, they will meet for the first time since they will children, and it will be each Queen's duty to try to kill her sisters to become the next Queen Crowned.

I loved all four books.


The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

I loved this book so much that I made my book club read it too. Good news, it was universally enjoyed! It perfectly meets that intersection of happy but not sickeningly so. Beautifully written but not slow. Humorous but not ridiculous. Fun but with a lot of depth.

If you don't like magical realism, first of all what's wrong with you? But second, skip this one. For the rest of us, this book is about a young woman whose father, an archaeologist, is constantly away. She lives with her father's wealthy patron instead, under a series of governesses. She's an in-between girl, not really this or that. And she's temerarious, according to her guardian, often escaping and running away. One of those times she runs away, she finds a door. Something about the door calls to her, and she walks through into another world.

After finding the first door, she becomes obsessed with finding more. And more. And more. Along the way she discovers some very hard truths, but she also finds out what has happened to her family, why her father is always away. She hopes that the doors will lead them back to each other.

I only have one spoiler: the dog lives.


Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

There is a little girl who watches her mother leave. She clings to the hope that her mother will come back someday, even as she watches her older brothers and sisters take off one by one. Then she's left alone with her broken, abusive father. She learns how to stay out of his way while also figuring out how to feed them, how to effectively fill her mother's role. Then her father disappears one day and she's left alone, still a young girl. She knows how to feed herself from the swamp she lives in, but she still needs money now that her father's disability check won't be coming anymore. So she figures that out too.

The other side of the story is about the murder of a young man in the town. A handsome young man, a rich young man with everything going for him. He was murdered and, since they have a history, fingers start pointing at the Swamp Girl. Could she have murdered him? If so, how? Why? And if it wasn't her, who did do it?

The two halves of this story were intertwined so beautifully. There are definitely parts I won't forget, wry remarks about animal (including human) nature that have stuck with me.


A Corner of White trilogy, by Jaclyn Moriarty

This is a young adult fantasy series set on Earth--specifically Cambridge, England--and in the Kingdom of Cello, a different world where colors can and do attack, the Butterfly child is desperately needed to save their crops, and a boy is convinced that his father could not have murdered someone and run away with the physics teacher.

One day he discovers a crack through to England and slips a note in there, not really expecting anything. A girl in England discovers the note in a broken parking meter, however, and thinking it's a joke she still writes back. The two correspond and they help unravel mysteries on both sides of this crack.

These were fun page-turners. Not particularly deep, but I really wanted to read what happened next and find out what was going on. They were good right on through the last page.


Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

I put this in fiction but, honestly, I'm not sure where it should go. It's set as a conversation between a gorilla and a man, but it talks about humanity. The stories we tell ourselves, the lies. What we're doing wrong and why we're unable to stop. There was so much to think about with this one. It made sense of a lot of things that really never made sense, but we don't think about them too hard. They're so ingrained in society and culture that we don't even think about them. This book forced me to, and I can't help but see the world a little differently now. It was good, I enjoy the shift in perspective. I just don't want to give away any more.


The Me Before You series, by Jojo Moyes

You may or may not have seen the movie, which was a good representation of the first book. But the book itself obviously has far more detail and was even more entertaining. The subsequent books are about how to move on from such an event, and how to find yourself again. They were just really good without being too heavy.


Biography

Cycling Home from Siberia, by Rob Lilwall

This was like reading my brother's cycling adventures from a different perspective. Rob's friend asked him to go on an extended bicycling tour with him and, despite never having done a bike camping trip in his life, he decided to do it. What started off as a decent adventure with a friend turned into an epic tour around most of Asia, Australia, and Europe. What was supposed to be a months-long trip turned into nearly three years before setting foot on home soil in England. He talks about the fascinating things, the terrors, the downright bizarre. But also what he missed at home, the loneliness at times. He didn't idealize life on the road or the people he met, but fully admits that the adventure was worth having.


Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

This is in a similar vein as above. Cheryl made bad decisions in her life. She married the right man, but she cheated on him until he left her. Then she hooked up with a series of increasingly sketchy men, believing that she didn't deserve better. At rock bottom, she had an abortion and spent most of her days high on heroin. So she decided to change her life. How? By hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

This is one of the most grueling hikes in North America. She didn't have any backpacking or hiking experience. When she started, her pack was so heavy that she couldn't even lift it up. But she made it, thanks very much to the kind hikers she met along the way who helped her out.


Becoming, by Michelle Obama

This book is super dense, because there's so much to it. About her childhood in Chicago. About the legacy of the Great Migration and the effects of white flight from neighborhoods like hers. But then politics too, the emotional toll it took on all of them. Her reluctance to every political step her husband took, but knowing that it was something he needed to do and supporting him anyway. Trying to raise kids in the White House with some semblance of normal, while also acknowledging that the Secret Service had to do a background check every time her kids wanted a playdate or spend at least an hour making arrangements for an "impromptu" trip to get ice cream. What she tried to accomplish as First Lady and why. What it was like to be the first black First Family, and to have everything she did not only under a microscope but also criticized with harsh vitriol. In the introduction she says that she wanted to ask people what offended them most, "angry", "black", or "woman"? Why is that particular combination something that people are so afraid of?

Seriously, there's just so much. Go read it.


Parenting

I've become convinced that most parenting experts have a child like my second one. She started sleeping through the night at six weeks (I know, a unicorn child). She got herself on a schedule that worked for the whole family, not taking naps at inconvenient times for school pickup. She's strong-willed and likes things just so, but she's also pretty quick to get out of any ill temper and she can be reasoned with or we can do some small compromises. She happily plays by herself.

Then there's my older child. Two of my brothers are fonts of virtually limitless patience, and she has pushed them both to the point of anger. My aunt, also the soul of patience with children, once told me, "That child is a demon!" which I still think about and laugh. So I came across the book Raising Your Spirited Child and fell in love. It is for anyone who's got a kid that's just a bit harder. A bit more. More rambunctions, more sensitive, more inquisitive, more tenacious and determined. I cried several times while reading it because I finally found a parenting book that talks about my older child. It confirms I'm not crazy! When I think that other parents just don't have it as hard, I'm not wrong! Most people don't have a kid who checks so many of these boxes. I need to buy this book for myself and keep it on my bedside table. Because it's not about how to mold or change your child, it's about how to change your thinking and to work with your child's specific needs. It reframes your thinking so that you see the positives of all their traits, when it can be so easy to get bogged down in the negatives. Instead of saying that my child is f***ing stubborn and driving me crazy! I can instead think that she's very, very determined, so how do I help us to both get what we need?

Another Leigh Bardugo book.
Read this one too.
Parenting is a work in progress, always. One of my brothers said that he wasn't sure if my older child was sent to be my early death or to teach me patience. I'm working on the latter of those two, for both our sakes.




My current read is Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Since I've loved all of her previous books I'm going to go ahead and pre-recommend this, especially if you love fantasy.

There have been so many books that I've read over the last three years. Nearly 200, according to my reading list. Most of them have been really good, these just happen to be my favorites. I'm sure some of the others are great but maybe I didn't read them at the right time, so they weren't my favorites. My reading list might not be for you, or the books I loved might not be right for you. It is what it is. I hope you can find at least one that you fall in love with.

Monday, December 9, 2019

A different way to view the world

Babyhood

Motherhood has involved way more time spent picking my kids' noses than I ever expected. I mean, when I envisioned having kids the amount of time I speculated I'd be picking their noses was zero, so it's not hard. But still.

Of all the surprises I've had, however, the biggest one by far is just how little I get to control my children's personalities. I spent so much time reading baby books in preparation for having my first kid, and then still more after we had her. I've spent much of my life around children and babies. I thought I knew what I was getting into. And then my first child was born, and she defied absolutely everything the baby books (and my experience) prepared me for. Get your child on a schedule, they said. So I dutifully tried. And I tried. And I tried. No amount of trying to force a schedule on her was going to work against her will. Even before she was born I remember telling my husband, "I think she's going to be stubborn," because she kept cramming her butt up into my ribs in utero. I'd push her away so I wasn't getting bruised ribs and after a moment she'd push her butt into my ribs again. Over and over. So the stubbornness and strong will were not exactly a surprise, but everything I'd read made it seem like I could mold my kid, direct her and move her in certain ways.

Never. I've never been able to direct my child. The schedule we're told to get babies on? She never had a consistent schedule for more than a few days at a time. I was going crazy in her first year because I could never tell if she was going to nap for 45 minutes or 3 hours. It changed from day to day. Two naps one day, none the next. Maybe she'd only wake up twice at night (which she was still doing at well over a year) or, and I'm not exaggerating, 10 times. It was exhausting, both mentally and physically. She was so fussy, and so inconsistent about everything. I was a total wreck. And worse, I constantly felt that I was Doing It Wrong, because that's what everything I'd ever read told me. What kind of shit mom can't even get their baby to hold a consistent schedule? Why can I not soothe her? It's not this hard for other people, I thought. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with my baby? In the worst moments, I wondered if I just wasn't suited to motherhood. The whole idea had been a mistake, and I was going to ruin my kid's life because I was never meant to be a mom.

I would love to say that it's gotten easier as she's gotten older, and in some ways it has. We can communicate with her, and that's a big plus. She has, in so many ways, grown into a delightful child. She's smart, she's funny. She loves to be helpful.

But she's never easy, and even "easier" is only something I can say about some moments, some aspects of life with her.

A sign I saw in Alaska, and which I might need.
I really loathe all the "mom of boys" memes out there because, frankly, that's pretty much what my daughter is like. Uncontrollably wild? Check. Potty talk, burping, and farting is the height of humor? Check. (My daughter and her best friend, another girl, made a song out of the lyrics, "The butt, the butt, the butt, the butttttt...the butt the butt the butt.") Peeing and pooping inappropriately? Uh, yes. I'm still embarrassed about the fact that my child pooped on a friend's couch, and under another friend's porch. And she does a "nature pee" whenever she thinks she can get away with it, including in the back yard. Not because "it's an emergency". She just likes it.

She climbs absolutely everything, and she's really, really good at it. We've got her in gymnastics but that's really to hone natural talent, not the driving force behind why she's good at all things physical.

I won't go on, but you get the picture. If that's what it's supposed to be like only for boys, where does my wild child fit in? And why should we define and confine children by their gender? She's got boy friends who are sweet, quiet, and biddable. (Yes, there are children out there who are like that. It's amazing.) Why should these experiences of childhood be erased just because they don't conform? Do I get a shirt that says, "I might as well have had boys"? But that might make it seem like I want my children to be other than what they are, and despite everything, I don't.

My daughter is what would have in the past be termed a hellion. A hoyden. She's even been jokingly described by the family as a demon, a monster, a psycho. I've said many times that whoever came up with the term "children should be seen and not heard" had a child like mine. The noise level, oh my gawd. The noise.

Two snowy days last year and
she was literally climbing walls.
Even worse, though, are her moods. Even from infancy she would rage at us for no apparent reason. She'd scream, not because she was tired or hungry, or cold, or for any reason we could understand. I was always told that babies don't scream for no reason so this lack of any apparent reason distressed me to no end. I couldn't help my child if I couldn't figure out why she was screaming at me. Not crying, not distressed, but actually rage screaming. It was yet one more thing to just endure about motherhood. One day she'd be happy and enjoy a day of exploring, the next she'd fuss and wail pretty much all day no matter what we did. I'm not gonna lie, it was awful. Again, I felt like a complete failure.

These moods haven't really gotten better as she's gotten older. They've gotten slightly longer apart, so we'll have a couple of good weeks at a time, but then she'll have a month of almost maniacal misbehavior. She'll throw day-long tantrums and then wake up the next day to do it all again. When we ask her why she says, "I don't know." Well past the age when she should be growing out of these behaviors, they're getting worse rather than better. She's begun hitting and kicking, and the rage of a six-year-old is vastly different from that of an infant, no matter how terrible it was when she was a baby.

My husband has assured me all along, grimly, that she's just like him. I say 'grimly' because he's got ADHD. You might not know this, as I didn't, that it's highly genetic. One of his biggest fears has always been that he would pass it along to our kids. When the Munchkin was born it was obvious to his family that she was just like he was.

I brushed it off for a long time. This was not as flippant as that statement makes it seem, actually. Growing up in a small town, the fact that he was different was used to bully my spouse. One of the first things he told me about himself is that he's got ADHD. It became something that defined him, not just a part of who he is but the defining characteristic. I didn't want that for our daughter. I didn't want her to feel so different that it defined everything about her.

But I did a bit of research. I didn't want to not get her help, I just didn't want to prematurely diagnose her (since ADHD isn't generally addressed before the age of about 5) and I didn't want to make her feel Different. Worse. Unworthy. But I was willing to do some things as if she had ADHD, without seeking a diagnosis. Unspoken between us was the fact that going to an outdoor, nature preschool was one of the best things we could have done for our child. I've also made sure that we create outlets for her boundless energy, and even small things like getting her into our backyard (backed by a greenspace, surrounded by trees) as often as possible helps to calm her down. I've taken her out running with me on days when she seems ready to explode. I've found a series of children's yoga videos that she adores, to the point that she'll actually ask for them. (Little sister tries to do them too, and it's the most adorable thing to see them together on the mat.)

Having a second kid also threw her behavior into a new light. My second child is as different from the first as the sun from the moon. If my big girl is just like her dad, my little girl is just like me. It has forced me to confront the fact that the baby books are wrong--I'm never going to be able to mold my child. Maybe some kids are like espaliered trees but not mine. She's a force of nature. She's a river. I can help shore up her banks but I can't change the direction she flows in. This is true of both my children. And it's such a relief. I'm not doing it all wrong, and neither is she. Fuck the baby books for ever making me doubt the two of us.

Then, school started

Kindergarten, and no longer having our beloved outdoor preschool, loomed heavy in our minds. The Munchkin was so excited to be a big girl and starting big kid school. But we, her parents, were nervous. Sitting in school all day was going to be a hard transition. I did all the pre-k stuff. She did Jump Start, a week that gets the kids in the classroom before kindergarten starts. They meet the teachers and the other students, they get to learn the school and some of the routine. I met both of the kindergarten teachers and liked them, so I didn't care which one of them taught my kid. I learned that because she goes to a Title I school there are actually some amazing advantages--a small class size, for instance, and AmeriCorps volunteers to help with reading and math in small groups. Extra behavioral interventions for kids who need them. Three recesses. They even do a tiny morning meditation during the morning announcements. The principal is wonderful. The PTA (which I've joined) is chill parents who are simply invested in making sure the all the kids at our tiny school are successful. It's a great school, and we weren't worried about that.
Apparently we have studs
everywhere.

We were just worried about her behavior issues. Having our second daughter helped in so many ways, but it also made it obvious that the Munchkin's behavior issues and moods were not just a normal part of childhood. Miss Sunshine is firmly in toddler territory, but even her tantrums are nothing compared to her sister's. She can be redirected or soothed in a way that our older child can't. It has become more and more obvious that there's something major going on and that it's something we all need help with. So I started doing more serious research about ADHD. I looked up the diagnostic criteria and made a surprising discovery--that I likely also have ADHD. When I was a kid it would have been called ADD, but now it's all lumped together under the same heading but with different forms. I check pretty much all the boxes for the inattentive form of ADHD.

I say it was a surprise, but in many ways it wasn't. I've heard about this since I was a kid and have many times wondered. Maybe that's why other kids could seem to remember about things like permission slips, when I never could? (I learned to forge my dad's signature early on, so I wouldn't miss out on field trips.) Or why organization has always been so difficult for me? Or why remembering to turn in homework, or even that I had homework, was so hard for me?

It's not surprising that this could have been missed in me. I was a daydreamer, so I was quietly inattentive rather than the flashy, attention-getting hyperactivity of my child. Girls, who tend more toward the inattentive form, are distressingly under-diagnosed and don't get the help they (we) need. As with many illnesses, the gold standard in diagnosis was based on symptoms more often seen in boys. Sexism in medicine is alive and well. This was all especially true when I was younger, when ADHD was a "boys' problem".

I had wondered over the years, but none of my teachers and neither of my parents ever mentioned the possibility. Since my parents tended to dismiss my complaints of hurt and illness (sometimes with reason--I did like to play up any illness to stay home from school) I also dismissed this. My mom would just roll her eyes if I suggested it, I thought, and I'd be made to feel like a hypochondriac. So I didn't mention it to anyone. It was just a problem with me and not a disorder and, like with the parenting, it was entirely my fault if I couldn't do these things that came naturally and easily to everyone else. The problem was me.

When I mentioned this suspicion that I might have inattentive ADHD to my younger brother he said, "Oh, well that's what I've got so it wouldn't be surprising if you do too." I mentioned that it's genetic, right? A shocking number of parents learn that they've got ADHD when their child is diagnosed with it. I suspect that many, like myself, won't really do much about it (I'm not going to seek a formal diagnosis or medication because obviously I've got my life fairly stable--it would be different if things were out of control) but it is nice to know. It's nice to feel like things aren't just all my fault because I'm terrible at being human.

The more I think of it, the less I want my daughter to think that it's just a problem with her. I didn't want her to grow up feeling bullied and persecuted for being different, but even less do I want her to think that she's just wrong. How can I build confidence in my daughter if everything I do tells her that she's not wonderful just as she is?

This helps us all.
Knowing that this is likely something we share is helping me to be more patient with my kid. It has been so easy at times to think that she's doing this to us, that's she's misbehaving on purpose because she's willful. Sometimes I've thought that I gave birth to her and she's hated me for that ever since. Now it's getting easier for me to separate her behavior from who she is, and who she wants to be.

It's also making me think more about the ways I've found to help me manage the world. I've had to figure out ways of organization that help me do what needs to be done. I've figured out how to manage my time (mostly), my stuff (I'm getting better), and what I need to do to pay attention when it's important. My mind still wanders a lot, but I also know how to snap myself back to attention. So I'm using these things to help her out as well. Obviously not all of them will be applicable. She's a different person, and her symptoms manifest differently. There will be a lot of trial and error over the years. But I hope I'm showing her that it can be done, and that by giving her multiple ways of doing something right she will eventually figure out what works best for her. Just because something works well for someone else doesn't mean that she's wrong if it doesn't work for her.

This thinking is also helping us to modify the house to help us all out. We have hooks at her height for easy storage of her backpack, her bath robe. We have bins so that the toys can be picked up and put away easily, without taking too much time. If we make it easy for her to be organized then she will be more able to help herself.

Before kindergarten started we began the process of getting her diagnosed with ADHD. We knew she'd need the help. I'm so glad this is something we started early, because no matter what it takes a few months. She started off the school year on her best behavior but as she's gotten more comfortable her behavior has gotten wilder and wilder. If we'd waited to seek help then we'd have been frantic for answers and help. As it is, the week before Thanksgiving she went to the office at least once every day, and she had three notes sent home. She was crawling on the floor and scattering teaching materials. She was climbing on things and stacking furniture. Whenever someone asked her why she'd say, "I don't know." She was out of her own control and, frankly, it seemed to scare her.

That same week, she officially got the diagnosis. The week after her sixth birthday. We'd had forms to fill out, and one for her teacher. We discussed her issues and what we've tried at home. She behaved beautifully at the doctor's--climbing things, crawling, interrupting, humming noisily. She's obviously a bright kid (which sounds braggy, but I have as much control over that as I do any other part of her nature and I know it) but she can't hold still or stay quiet to save her life. This diagnosis was more of a relief than anything else. Now we can truly get the help she needs, the support we all need.

We've made the really difficult decision that she does need medication. She's prescribed something that won't linger in her system but will help her out for 8-10 hours a day. The first time she took it, a trial run on a day when we'd be with her, she flew into a rage that morning. She'd misbehaved and I sent her for a timeout. The week before when this had happened I'd had to chase her down and throw her in her room, at which point she'd flung the door open and run away. I had to chase her down again, kicking and screaming and clawing at me, and then hold the door closed with her throwing herself against it and kicking and continuing to scream. It was like confining a wild animal. This went on for an hour. An hour. And it wasn't the only time that day, that week.

With the medication, though? She went to her room. She wasn't happy about it but she went. No screaming. No clawing and kicking and hitting me. She stayed in her room until I told her she could come out. She listened to me when I explained what she'd done wrong, and how she could have done better. At the end she said, "Well, I'm sorry for that," and then explained her side of things. Calmly. I could not have been more shocked. I almost cried, both because it was so wonderful to be able to have a calm discussion but also because this rational little girl has been locked inside of her for so long, struggling. She knows what she should do but she gets to a point where she's not the one in control and she has no idea how to get back. She knows what she should do but she just can't do it.

We had decided that she was only going to have her medicine on school days, to help her out when she needed it the most. But last night as I was tucking her into bed I mentioned that today would be a school day and she perked up. "So I'll get my medicine?" I said yes and then asked, "Do you want to take your medicine every day?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

She hesitated for a second and then told me, "Because I'm a nice person when I take it."

You guys. That gutted me. It's only been a few weeks but she can feel such a difference in herself. It's not that she wants to be mean, or to lose control, it's that she really can't control herself. And she hates it as much as, or more than, anyone else does. She's been the one reminding me on school mornings that she needs to take her medicine. (In a spoonful of applesauce is the easiest way for her.) We worried that this would be a hard thing, but she's seeking the changes as much as we are. She already knows she behaves differently from the other kids, and she hates it. She wants to be more in control of herself. So we're giving her control over when she takes her medication. If she wants to take it every day for a while, she can be in charge of that. She's mature enough to see the difference it's making, so she's mature enough to make the choice for herself. It's not dulling who she is or changing her, it's just giving her the control she's been lacking.

It's easy to see that this is not only helping her concentrate, but also giving her a morale boost. Every day when she gets to tell me she had another great day at school her eyes are glowing. She's happy with herself, and that is priceless. ADHD is so much more than just not being able to focus, or having lots of energy. And it's been crushing her to feel like she can't do well at school, when she's been so excited about it.

I've seen the attitude that medicating kids with ADHD is somehow...a copout? The easy way? Something for pansy helicoptering Millennial libtards, or whatever word salad someone wants to put together to be insulting. I've even had someone tell me that ADHD in my child was caused by her traumatic birth, which feels awesome to be blamed for by the way. Those are all fundamental misunderstandings of this...I can't really say illness, or impediment, or learning disorder. It's a different way of experiencing the world. If medicine will help make the world a little more meaningful, a little easier to understand, then so be it.

I'm certain our stance on medication will continue to evolve as she gets older. This will be an ongoing discussion, especially as she matures. Medication is also not where this will end--there's behavioral therapy that we're going to start after the New Year. There are changes that the whole family will need to make in addition to the things we're already doing (playing at the playground every day after school, biking to and from school) to help her. We're looking into getting weighted blankets, possibly even for everyone except the little one (until she's older). We're working on calming strategies such as yoga and deep breathing. We'll continue modifying things and figuring out what works best for us.

Kids with ADHD also frequently have sensory issues. I've begun to wonder if that has played a role in some of her fussiness. When she's getting sick is often when she's been at her worst. When she was potty training I noticed that she would get angry and upset, then go to the bathroom and be calmer again. She takes off her shoes at school because she "hates shoes" (I get it, kid, I really do) and she would be naked 100% of the time if she could. She seeks stimulation in so many aspects (light, noise) that it can be startling to realize that other sensations are overwhelming for her. So we're going to explore that aspect more, and try to see in what ways we can help her out there.

The biggest thing this diagnosis has given us all is peace of mind. It's not that she's a bad kid, or we're bad parents. It's not something we're doing or not doing that's causing her behavior issues. If anyone is to blame it's the world we live in--big and noisy and overstimulating in the extreme. We can't change that but we can change our attitude. There are amazing aspects to ADHD. People with the hyperactive form tend to be incredibly perceptive, noticing everything. HusbandX has used that aspect to be really, really good at his job. I use the daydreaming to work on my writing, figuring out just how to word something. So we're going to focus on the positive aspects of who she is, and how she can use her natural talents to succeed. This diagnosis doesn't have to be something that marks her out as strange, or drags her down. It can be something that sets her apart in a good way, because she has skills that the average person doesn't. It's up to us to help her recognize what those are and how to use them.


Book Recommendation

I finally found one. A book about child rearing that I love. It was the first book I've ever read that actually described my child. This book is not ADHD specific. It's for parents of any kids who are high energy, high difficulty. It's called Raising Your Spirited Child. I nearly cried when I read it because it confirmed so many of my observations, things that went against normal parenting advice. Like, a bath before bed is a terrible idea for my kid. She's not soothed and calmed, she gets hyped up.

It really, really helped me to understand my kid better because the author goes through nine different personality traits that anyone can have, but which can be more intense in a spirited kid. It ends up like a mix-and-match book, because not all parts will be relevant to your kid. But when it is? It's life changing. Getting the confirmation that yes, your kid is just more challenging than average. No, you're not a terrible parent if you find your kid to be way too much sometimes. And she talks about ways to reframe things for yourself. Why these traits can be so difficult, but also why they can be incredibly positive. Ways you can help your kids to bring out the positive more than the negative.

If anyone else out there has a kid that's just more, even if it's just in one or two areas, I really do recommend this book. It made me wonder why I would ever want a kid who's not intense and passionate and fiery. Why would I want some insipid milksop who follows directions the first time when I could have my wild and wonderful kid who doesn't stop questioning and doesn't slow down because she feels everything all the time?

It's so nice not to feel like a failure, like you or your child is doing something wrong. If any of this resonated with you, please read the book. And feel free to pass along to me any that you've found helpful.