In Return

Someone told me once that the best thing you can tell your spouse is often “that sucks”–as in, don’t try to fix things when they’re upset. Don’t try to tell them what to do. Just listen and say, “that sucks.” Because what most people want is to be heard, the feeling that someone else cares about the hard things that happen to you. More often than not it’s what I want: just acknowledgement. Saying “I know exactly how you feel” is untrue. Telling me what to do is awful. And you can forget about “just relax” or “it’s fine.” Well. I am lying about one thing. It wasn’t a person, it was an episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but it still changed our marriage. “That sucks” is often just right.

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Three months ago, I went back to church. Do you see how I buried that in the second paragraph? It’s hard to write about. A little embarrassing. Church sure has a lot of different connotations, doesn’t it? I feel you forming an opinion. I have an opinion, too, because it’s been almost 20 years. Church is a loaded word, conjuring either a closed mind, or too much liberty with the word of God, depending on which peanut butter you buy in 2018. And my tendency is usually to hem in whatever bits of myself might be most interesting or bold so I don’t offend. But that’s exhausting. At almost 40 I just want to be. Like RuPaul says, “what other people think about me is none of my damn business.” In the last year our cruel president’s policies and my health issues have clarified my sense of self. Remaining silent or immobile is a privilege I don’t want. But I don’t want to do good alone, either. I want to work within in a body that does good for others in the community and the world. I finally realized that the place I’d grown up, a small congregation of the United Methodist Church with its policy of inclusion and a history of serving vulnerable populations–was it.

As a kid, I liked any part of the church service that was said in unison. Sometimes I’d close my eyes and speak along with the prayers that hummed around my head, while the light warmed my ear from the stained glass windows. Often, though, I’d snuggle into my grandma’s side, bow my head and run my finger along the sewn-in seam on the knee of her polyester pants while we prayed. I loved the sounds of the Lord’s prayer. Especially: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. All those good S-es that the debt/debtor people miss. I struggled, then, to think of any trespasses against me. I always had a list of my own.

My church wasn’t cool, but it was earnest. I stopped attending around my late teens–not because I gave up on religion, but because I looked down my nose on my church’s simple and steady routines; they didn’t seem like enough. Please stand for the reading of the Gospel. You may be seated. Let us pray. The creaky pews, the casseroles, the basement fellowship time. Puppets. Choir robes. Powdered lemonade. I wore my Methodism–which comes to me by both sides of my family tree–like a scratchy hand-me-down sweater. I shed it the first chance I got: I was attracted to my friends’ sparkling mega-churches—where people raised their hands in worship and sang the refrains of songs over and over with their eyes closed. These churches had rock bands and LCD screens, dark lights, and altar calls. We were married by a dear pastor in one of those big churches when I was 20. I felt happy there, but when I look back I wonder at the spectacle. It seems like some churches are designed to draw people in to entertain them with the show rather than to inspire service to the community at large. (What rock concert would Jesus attend?) Where I settled, there was so much emphasis on judgment–never from the pastor, mind you. But I can’t avoid the memory of so many prayers for friends in our circle who had “fallen away,” so many whispers about other people’s sin. And so much daily, constant anxiety about my own. It was easy for me to get lost. That wasn’t the case where I grew up, and yet it was the world I found myself absorbed into by my late teens. In 2000, around the time I was married, a group came to a church service to speak about Prop 22, a precursor to California’s Prop 8 Marriage Initiative. I was hardly woke, then, by any standard, and it still felt wrong. Really wrong. I didn’t feel like my heterosexual relationship was in danger if my gay friends could get married. I was disgusted by how people acted in the name of God. Soon I gave up and stopped attending.

For almost the same time that I’ve been avoiding church, I’ve been teaching public high school. In some ways, that was easier. There are strict restrictions about what I can say and what I am allowed to teach. I could never–and would never–espouse a particular political or religious view as the only view in a lesson, and yet my entire job is interpretation. When my job as a critic is quite literally to have opinions, it’s a strange dichotomy. So in the interim, it has worked to believe, quietly, in God. I am positive that I believe in God in such a different way from most people, anyway, and for a time, I felt like that might be wrong. In 2014, I reviewed Sara Miles’ City of God for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Miles, a Director of Ministry at a congregation in San Francisco’s Mission District, writes in her memoir about taking ashes out into the Mission on Ash Wednesday. “God so seldom means just one thing to any individual, much less the same one thing at a time to a whole group,” she writes, “and so worship spills out every place God meets people.” This idea and Miles’ account of faith interacting with the vibrant city spoke to me, so much that on a solo trip to San Francisco, I visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. I just wanted to see it.

I’m not sure why that detail should be important to you. I’m not sure about Mr. Rogers, either, except I want to tell you that I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor the other day, and I sat alone in a theater, crying a little bit as I watched him tell college kids that they were valuable just because they are, thinking about what a bold idea it is to be loving. Thinking about how many of my students need warmth. “Love is at the root at everything,” he said, “all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” It’s the same feeling I had when I watched Nanette, the groundbreaking Hannah Gadsby comedy special on Netflix, last week. It doesn’t matter why we choose a different kind of story. It’s risky, right? To be open to all people? To believe them when they tell you who they are? Our patterns of storytelling are built around heroes and victories. Power. Mistrust. On a national level, we’ve decided right now that we are going to be in this moment where winning matters. Where having matters. Where everyone is a liar. Going to church right now, being a part of a community, listening, serving others, speaking out, choosing love–these feel like acts of defiance–especially with a group that dedicates itself to serving vulnerable populations.

I’m not even sure if I’m conveying this properly.

I walked into church again on April 15th of this year because I’d just finished a book about recovery by an author who felt like she was too smart for AA’s scripts and clichés. In reviewing the book, I had to examine my own biases–I found that the author’s disdain for the rituals of AA grated against a part of me that felt comfort in repetition, in belief, and in gathering together with others who will listen, or in being someone who says yes, I will be here for you. But also, I read an echo of the pride that made me leave my home church almost 20 years ago. I decided to finally push past my embarrassment about not having gone for two decades and just go. Last Sunday, I sat next to a woman about my age. During the sermon, the pastor asked each of us to think of a time when we had felt most alone in the world. Then he asked us to turn to the person next to us and share. (Church comes with more interaction, now, I guess.) I won’t tell you what the woman shared, but it was painful. I thought about that advice from Parks and Rec as I listened to this stranger who was incredibly vulnerable. As she spoke through her tears, I tried to offer a more eloquent version of “that sucks.” I shared something in return. We stumbled through a conversation, but it had value. 2018 often makes me feel like I need being human classes. Church feels like my way to reach out rather than to reject, right now. A way to acknowledge the humanity of the people around me. Earnest connection, which is something.

I had a year.

This morning we watched The Battle of the Bastards again and I tried not to look away from all the stabbing. It’s been a big week in TV as we’ve tried to wait out whatever viral thing has lobbied its way into our family’s respiratory systems. Resistance is futile: five seasons of GOT, some Voyager and now The Fall, plus cold meds. TV feels like as good as any other way to mark the passing of mucous and the old year.

But this isn’t a good riddance to 2016 post. My 2015 was much harder, physically, and though 2016 surprised me, in some ways its helped me to grow up and figure out what matters. So, good on that. It feels icky to me to claim one year as the worst year ever in the same way it makes me squirm when people thank Jesus for winning a football game. Maybe my anxiety is about trying to pin that kind of power on one arbitrary thing. I do have one thing to say about the political mess of 2016: I just hope–hope–that 2017 brings more civility. America matters to me a whole lot, and so does our fundamental right to disagree with each other and still hold on to our humanity.

Anyway. Here’s what happened to me and my most important humans in 2016. It was a good year for our family.

Being a parent of non-toddlers is the strangest combination of longing for the wonderful little teeny people who used to live here and complete delight in the friendship of the newer, big people. I don’t begrudge them the fact that they’ve grown, and it’s the most wonderful thing to have these two whip-smart dudes to talk to. But I won’t lie: when Henry had a ridiculously high fever a few weeks ago and draped himself across me like a rag doll, I ate it up. (Along with his germs, which is why every one else got sick shortly thereafter). Henry is 11 now, and Addie is 14.

But they’ve done more this year than just get taller. Henry is in sixth grade, but taking math at the local junior high every afternoon. His coding and gaming hobbies have now expanded into building computers. I’d like to claim we saw it coming with Legos or something when he was three, but everyone says that thing about Legos proving your kid is a genius, right? We couldn’t have imagined what kind of mind he’d have for all that now. He’s just following his curiosity, and we’re trying our best to let him, whatever that means. He’s also a nut for anything related to mythology, ancient history, and puns. He played volleyball for his elementary school last year and joined the swim team with Addie. His favorite stroke is butterfly. He is a good and kind boy, and he makes me laugh every single day.

Addie is at the high school with me, which is nice. She bit a big bullet and did summer school there to get two classes out of the way so she could take both Spanish 2 and digital arts electives during the year. In both her summer school classes and her first semester, she worked her tail off and earned straight As. I’m incredibly proud of what a good student she is. She is a maniac of a reader and such a good writer. She had to read Ender’s Game for school and Eric and I had never read it before, so we both read it too. We ended up in a heated family argument about whether or not Ender was a hero. She was so mad about the book (I loved that!). But more important to me than arguing about books is the fact that she’s still the same kind, artistic, and sympathetic soul. I really enjoy getting to spend time with her every day as we drive to school and set up my classroom in the morning. It’s been a good chance to see her for who she really is, now. In addition to swimming on the swim team again, Addie has been volunteering regularly for the Sacramento Zoo as a part of the Zoo Teens program this year. I’m so proud of everything she is, and everything she has ahead of her.

Eric had a good year too. He got a promotion in place at a job he loves, so he can keep doing the work he likes with the people he likes. He taught several training classes for his office at McGeorge and for various other state agencies this year. He continued to do all kinds of improvements on our house and completely remodeled our garage from a nasty, dusty heap to an organized storage space and working shop for Maude (the other woman, his 1954 Ford Customline). Last spring he and his dad put up solar panels on the side of the house so the kids and I could enjoy a heated pool; I spent my entire summer enjoying the fruits of their labor and getting a ridiculous tan. Eric’s made friends with our neighbors, and continues to be happy to run over to our friends’ homes to do handyman work and fix-it jobs. I feel incredibly lucky to be married to someone who is a book smart lawyer (and a great editor for my reviews), and knows how to fix things.

My sister, Melissa’s, family lives about five minutes from us, and our kids are constantly connected. We had to tell the five of them this year that they can’t just arrange sleepovers on their group text without checking with adults–this week we’ve had to institute a code word to confirm that they checked with the other parent for approval. The best thing in the world is seeing (and hearing) our five noisy kids knock around together. They’re loud, but they love each other. When Melissa and I were pregnant with Luke and Henry we used to daydream about how close our kids would be. The older they get, the more they all want to hang out, and it’s even better than we hoped.

I didn’t work on reviews as much as I have in previous years. Part of that was by choice–twice this year I took breaks from social media and review pitching because the cycle of keeping up with publishing news and books that were coming out during such a contentious news cycle was making me weary. I think the larger consideration was that this was (and will continue to be until they graduate in 2017) such a different year with my AVID class. I’ve had the same class of amazing kids since they were freshmen. This fall, I shepherded 30 of them through the college application process and FAFSA process, and it almost defies description, it was so taxing. I take the responsibility of their futures so seriously, and I was so nervous for most of November that I’d miss something or mess up somehow in helping them. They didn’t get done early (as I’d hoped), but they got done by the deadline. I’ve been trying to forgive myself a little for not reading as much and not reviewing as much because I know teaching full time and college app assistance took all of my energy even when I wasn’t doing anything. I couldn’t turn my brain off and stop worrying about them when I’d go to bed. The amazing part of this is that for the last few months, I’ve gotten the most amazing texts as these kids get into college. I am so proud of them. They are great. But holy crap, helping 30 kids apply to college at the same time is no joke. No. Joke.

Critical work was slower this year, as I said, but probably more rewarding. The more I do it, the more I see that it is both what I want to do and what I am meant to do–but the more I continue to see what I have to learn. But 2016 brought me some big opportunities: I was fortunate enough to be asked back to do a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books again, and early in 2016, I interviewed Yann Martel for Goodreads. His publisher ended up adding the interview to the paperback version of the book, which was published in November. Just before the election, I interviewed the brilliant Michael Chabon.

The best thing this year, hands-down, was my trip to DC with Kitty to tour the West Wing with a friend from high school. It was incredible, not only because being in such a historical place is beyond anything I can put into words, but because on our way to DC, we were rerouted to North Carolina and had to drive all night to make it.  It was, in terms of travel mishaps, a pretty big mess. But navigating our way out of the mess felt like a huge accomplishment, and getting to see the Oval Office, the Press Room, the White House, and then so much of DC with Kitty, was a real gift. I’m incredibly grateful to our host, Katrina, who welcomed us into her family and home while we were there.

I spent a lot of 2016 overscheduled. I don’t say this as a brag or a badge of honor. It means I’m doing something wrong. Working full time as a high school teacher and part time as a book critic and whatever time you count it as when you’re a mom of two kids who cooks and cleans and shops and does all the things? That’s too much. I’m not happy with all of it and I spent a lot of 2016 trying to figure out how to do less and there’s not really an answer. Some of it I want to do while I’m lucky enough to have the kids here before college. I don’t want to sacrifice my time with them. So maybe 2016 was just about a shifting of priorities, or a pondering about whether or not I can be patient or still keep myself in the publishing world if I’m not still out there trying to prove the same things I was proving two years ago. I don’t have answers. But I worried a lot in 2016.

Things I don’t care about: staying up until midnight (tonight or any night), making a resolution for 2017, having any answers tonight.

What I do know: every year with this family gets better. I am lucky to be loved and to have people who let me love them and spend lots of time with them.

Happy New Year. May it be good to you.

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Open

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Saturday afternoon we had a house full of humans.

We threw a housewarming party, and road-tested the new digs. For the first time in our lives, we have a house big enough to party. A house big enough to hold our larger-than-average families. A house big enough to open.

I couldn’t sleep the night before because hello, of course I couldn’t, so even though the better part of last week was spent spending and shopping, and doing, I woke up at 3:00 AM to try to worry myself into a successful fête. I nudged Eric and told him I was too nervous about the party to sleep and he murmured mmm and promptly rolled over. I had made an Ina-worthy checklist the night before (complete with timetable, you guys) but I was still consumed by my trademark middle of the night anxiety. So I did what any good HSP does, and I got out of bed at 4:00 AM to start cooking.

Actually, nobody tells you this (bakers, maybe?) but 4:00 AM is a nice time to cook. It’s super quiet and nobody is trying to steal anything you make, and you can cook in your PJs without anyone’s judgy eyes on you. I flipped on Downton Abbey and Mrs. Patmore kept me company while I chopped brussels sprouts and dipped things in chocolate. Not for the same dish, no.

I felt a lot of pressure to entertain well–I always do–I come from a line of warm hosts and hostesses, of people who know how to put some cheeses on a plate and make you feel welcome AF. So I had convinced myself I needed to get this right. All week as I was shopping and cleaning and planning, I found myself wondering what my parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents would do, and when it came time to answer the door, I was happy with how that strategy served me. I don’t have it down, yet, but I learned from the best.

I prepped everything I could (which took me until about 8:30 or 9, who can remember?), showered, ran to JoAnn Fabric one more time because I CAN’T PARTY WITHOUT WASHI TAPE FOR LITTLE TOOTHPICK APPETIZER SIGNS, and was home in time to style the craft project that lives on top of my head. Side note: I gave up on dressing/styling myself for school back in about September, when the house crap hit the fan, and that added an extra level of difficulty/awkwardness to Saturday’s dressing, hair curling, and heel-wearing. All was well, but my current girl game is weak. Perhaps I will continue to dress like a male PE coach for the remainder of the year and then style myself like a lady again for the fall of 2016.

Anyway. The party was a smash, and not because of anything I did–it was wonderful because my husband worked his tail off getting the constructiony things done, and I had help doing the kitcheny stuff, and my house was filled with love and friends and people who like us. People who were like damn, that was kind of an ordeal getting into this place, you guys, but hey why don’t you walk me around and point at your rooms? We had neighbors come by, old friends, new friends, family, and friends who are like family. Just the best mix of people.

By 7:30 PM my eyes were too tired to read, and I fell asleep at 8:00 without remembering to eat any dinner.

Sunday I just floated around on my cloud of clichés. I am lucky as all get out to have such a beautiful family, lucky to know so many wonderful people, lucky to have a home to bring everyone together. This feels like our grown-up house, like the space where we get to grow into the life we wanted at 19 (before we had any kind of clue how to get it).

It’s time.

house2Remember that one time when I complained about being bored all summer, and then in the span of a week everything happened?

I’ve been sleeping and binge-watching my way through my break from school, trying to wait it out for August 4, the date on which I am cleared to act like a normal human who does normal human activities again. I’m so close! (And I only get 6 days of glorious full-fledged personhood before I have to go back to work, but so what. I’ve made my peace.) While I was waiting and lamenting how much this summer vacation really blows, we decided to change everything.

We went to an open house because we were bored. And then we went to another one and then we made an appointment to see another house and then we were like well, we’re this far into it and we made an appointment to see one more, and it’s the exact thing we want. And I told Eric we should just go ahead and fill out the loan paperwork so we can see where we stand. And where we stand is actually okay. So as of Wednesday night, we are selling our house.

We bought our current home when Addie was one and a half. The market was good enough that we could sell our starter duplex and move into something bigger–but even then, the something bigger was only going to be for about five years. We knew we wanted more kids, we knew those kids would someday be kind of tall, and we knew our three bedroom wasn’t going to be comfortable for too long. At the time, Eric was finishing college. As he graduated and moved on to law school, we thought for sure we’d be out of this house in no time. Heh.

Then, the market took a dump. Like so many people, we were upside down in our house. Though we tried to refinance under the many versions of HARP, we never quite qualified. And we couldn’t bring ourselves to do anything risky. So even though we’d periodically daydream about something larger (or an office for me!), we always found ourselves gritting our teeth and paying our mortgage, hoping that this wouldn’t be the house we’d have to retire in.

Luckily, in addition to being a smartypants lawyer, Eric is amazingly handy. He built a patio cover that gave us extra space. He upgraded pretty much every surface in our home and wired the entire thing for sound and internet. When we bought this place, it was all original and it was a mess. Now it’s a pretty sweet place to live. The one thing we couldn’t do was make the actual house bigger.

So this week we’re moving forward–doing what we hoped we could do about 6 years ago. It’s scary but it’s wonderful and I am basically a nervous wreck. The idea of trying to sell/buy/move while teaching and reviewing and parenting and trying to keep my shit together seems kind of insane. But it feels like it’s time.

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The Peanut Butter War: Sweet, Sweet Surrender

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About three years ago, I took a stand for natural peanut butter. I put my foot down and decided that in my home, we were not going to consume hydrogenated oil-laden nut butters, nor were we going to eat anything that had added sugar. My poor, poor children. At least, my extended family thought so. They responded by gifting baskets of peanut butter (“the good kind,” they said, not the oil-on-top gritty hippie gruel I was peddling) to my husband and kids. And thus, 8 jars of sweetened, shelf-stable crack invaded my home. I still stand by 2012 Heather’s claims. We are never going to stop eating treats in this family, so the things we eat all the time (read: peanut butter) should be processed as little as possible. But once those jars were here, I couldn’t stop anyone from eating them.

Here’s the other thing. Did you notice that peanut butter is ALL ABOUT advertising the fact that it doesn’t have trans fats anymore? But it still needs to be shelf-stable and free of visible oil, right? (Heaven forbid a food product should spoil…) They just swapped the hydrogenated stuff for palm oil. Which isn’t better.

Sigh. Anyway.

I didn’t grow up liking peanut butter. My mom put it on both pieces of bread in a PB&J, which meant that I associated it with a sticky, dry mouth. Yick. I was late to the peanut butter game when I started buying natural peanut butters as an adult. I didn’t love PB like most people. I tolerated it. But the kids seemed to like PB (as most humans), so I bought it. I made seven million sandwiches. And I tried to hold the line for as long as possible.

Once those 8 jars were in our house, something happened to me, not just to the balance of peanut butter power . I gave in. The peanut butter you will allow is what will continue. Now the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction. Maybe because I’m cheap and I didn’t want to waste the 8 jars we received for Christmas… Maybe because Costco sells those two giant vats of Skippy… Maybe because with two kids, we go through the stuff faster than soap. But I stopped buying the good stuff. And then I started digging in.

Now I can’t stop. In what must be characteristic of my inner teen reasserting herself, I find that I am craving the stuff like a it’s keeping me alive. I am shoveling it into my mouth like it’s my job. Not the good stuff. Oh no. That wouldn’t bother me so much. I’m downing tablespoons of Jif.  SPOONFULS OF SKIPPY. Right out of the jar, like a hormonal, pimple-faced barbarian.

Great is my shame. I not only surrendered, I became a cheerleader for the other side. Every once in a while I try to eat a little scoop of almond butter, just to remind myself of who I used to be. I don’t even know myself anymore.