Categories
Reading

My year in reading, 2023

Pictured above are all of the books I finished in 2023. I know this thanks to a spreadsheet that I use to track what I’ve read since I stopped using Goodreads in 2022. (My timing was apt; the platform’s power over book publishing has only grown more complex and morally troubling since then.)

But back to my reading, which was distracted and sometimes uninspiring in 2023. What can I say? I have a toddler and a growing business and a completist mind that sometimes works to my own disadvantage. Yet as always, I found much to love in books that I read last year. Here are 15 of my favorites:

Nonfiction

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay
What a gorgeous book. This was an incredibly important reading experience that came at the right time in life for me. (A very apt Christmas gift from Ryan.) Gay’s ideas about education and gardening and basketball and skateboarding are all really about community care, which is to say, how we care for each other at our most human.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This is a deeply empathetic and thoroughly reported ethnography about housing in America, particularly low-income housing in Milwaukee, both in a majority-white trailer park and in the Black slums. Nothing has opened my eyes as much to this crucial pillar of basic need that so often falls by the wayside for those on the margins.

Stay True by Hua Hsu
A moving look at late 90s nostalgia, including college fashion and identity, mixtapes, photography, and the comfort of hanging out with people who you don’t really know when you don’t quite know who you’re becoming yet, either.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in An American City by Andrea Elliott
Incredible storytelling about a family struggling against racism and persistent poverty and all the attendant emotional fatigue that comes along with both systemic issues. Dasani’s story is told beautifully and realistically — which is saying something, considering how conditioned we are to hope for a reductive happy ending.

You or Someone You Love by Hannah Matthews

Stunning, worldview-changing book. I had no idea how much this book would resonate with me – it taught me a lot about community care and mutual aid and why these movements are critical and essential forms of showing up for one another.

Soil: A Black Mother’s Garden by Camille T. Dungy

What a wonderful, complex, self-assured memoir. I loved learning from Dungy about gardening as a way to nurture local species of flora and fauna, and how her hobby intersects with her life as a Black woman, mother, neighbor and teacher.

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

This author beautifully braids stories from the natural world along with those of her own grief and complexity as she cares for her aging parents. Renkl sets a brilliant example in disclosing that she is a passionate but equivocal gardener. (Should humans intervene in wildlife? Should we even be setting out bird feeders?!)

Doppelganger by Naomi Klein

No other book has offered such resoluteness and clarity on the time we’re living in as this one. Funny, heartbreaking, and wickedly smart. I need to reread this book before the next election cycle ends.

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford
I have always loved everything that comedian Maria Bamford has put into the world, and this memoir was no exception. (Listen to the audiobook, please — she’s a prolific voice-over artist and her parents are absolutely her best subject matter.)

Fiction

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
This novel is a lyrical, fascinating mix of folklore, literary fiction, western, and coming-of-age tale. You’ve never read an American origin story quite like it.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Strange and enchanting but ultimately beautiful book about compassion and what it means to trust others.

The Guest by Emma Cline
Sexy, dark, delicious novel that I gobbled up quickly. I endured the suspense (and even enjoyed it) as Cline wove a story that skewers affluence, class, insularity and gender norms.

Land of Milk and Honey by C. Pam Zhang
I didn’t know a dystopia could sound (or taste?) this good, but Zhang’s second novel was a sensuous delight, rich in detail and humanity.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
Diving into an Ann Patchett novel for the first time may be the highlight of my reading experience on this earth. This story made me feel understood and cozy and cared for — gentle and hopeful and emotionally savvy in all the right places.

Family Meal by Bryan Washington
This book was such a surprising bright spot. It’s a novel about loss and grief, but also about sex and food and control and desire and family. To me, Washington’s tenderness and growth came through more in this novel than in his previous work.

This line from Washington’s author’s note in Family Meal is my 2024 motto, in reading and beyond: “Care and slowness are two gifts that we deserve, boundless pools we can offer ourselves and those we hold dear.”

Categories
Miscellany

100 things that made my year in 2023

1. Embracing toddler chaos during 8:00 Mass. Taking trips to the book box. Letting Maeve pick out her donut on hospitality days.

2. Family hikes with the kid carrier backpack.

3. Gyoza and greens with chile butter.

4. Burning candles and incense after cleaning the house on Saturdays.

5. Thinking about building my own repertoire of repair.

6. Maeve’s loving devotion to the neighborhood cats, Bowie, Freddie and Ruby.

7. Walking to the neighborhood library branch and visiting the local goats and chickens.

8. Seeing Lauren Groff with Judith at the Schnitz. Learning that she writes her drafts longhand on legal pads and then throws away her previous draft when starting the next one.  

9. A February beach trip. Walking barefoot in the cold sand and getting cozy by the fire. Green winter hikes and old family board games.

10. Joining Jenni Gritters’ ADAPT business coaching group for women with constraints, and then becoming a member of her SUSTAIN group. Building community with other women who run freelance businesses. Tackling business registration paperwork and finally opening business bank accounts.  

11. Cleaning one shelf/cupboard/drawer per day during Lent.

12. Hanging out at playgrounds and encouraging Maeve to brave the slides.

13. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. The photography of Nan Goldin and Peggy Nolan. Learning from artists how to see what is.

14. Buying a humidifier and so many boxes of Kleenex. Losing sleep to sicknesses. Bulking up our medicine cabinet.

15. A quick trip to Key West for a wedding. Tequila sunrises and actual sunsets. Catching up with friends around the pool.

16. Weaning Maeve after 14 months of breastfeeding. Wearing cabbage leaves in my bra for a week. Experiencing a bleak bout of post-weaning depression and then slowly returning to myself — and appreciating my body for all it does for both of us.

17. Early Girl tomatoes from our potted plant on the front porch.

18. Impromptu urgent care visits to ZoomCare and Brave Care.

19. How Maeve stacks stickers on top of each other when she’s making artwork.

20. Drawing cats for Maeve in my morning notebook.

21. Chugging along through John Updike’s Rabbit series as part of The Pulitzer Project.

22. Going to Peninsula Park when the roses were in bloom. Watching Maeve run through the splash pad and crawl through playground tunnels.

23. The afternoon when Ryan and I were taking out the recycling and the trash and Maeve locked herself in the house. Panicking for 45 minutes until the locksmith showed up. Trying to soothe an upset toddler through a closed window.

24. Reading Sandra Boynton books over and over at bedtime.

25. Opening the front door and standing on the stoop to listen to a hard downpour.

26. Maeve starting part-time daycare in March and moving to a full-time schedule in November.

27. Estimated quarterly income tax payments.

28. Going back to the movies. Taking our nephew to see The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Wonka. Seeing Love Again with Teresa. Wearing pink to see Barbie with Mom and my sisters.

29. Leaving out Maeve’s discarded or leftover snacks for the squirrels and crows.

30. Accidentally bringing the norovirus with us to Kansas City. Taking Ryan to the ER for Zofran and IV fluids. Eating bland chicken and rice instead of barbecue on our spring family visit.

31. Maeve’s enthusiasm for our very limited yardwork tasks. Pulling weeds, picking up cherries, sweeping leaves, overwatering the flowers and tomatoes.

32. Cottage cheese with apples, cinnamon and walnuts for breakfast.

33. Walking to the Sellwood farmers market for summer fruit and focaccia.

34. Playing tourist at the new MCI single-terminal airport. Admiring the art and buying local goodies.

35. Enduring so, so many episodes of Ms. Rachel on YouTube.

36. Kicking off a Wilmes family camp-out with a hibachi dinner in Grandma’s front yard. Going for a chaotic group bike ride. Making giant bubbles on the blacktop. Maeve playing in the bounce house and lounging in the ball pit.

37. A perfect day date in Kansas City: lunch at Baba’s Pantry, Messenger Coffee, shopping at Hammerpress, BLK + BRWN. and Mills Record Co., drinks at Ca Va, dinner at Fox and Pearl.

38. Long text conversations with fellow moms. Sending voice memos instead of calling voicemail inboxes. The monthly Letterloop with my dearest friends.

39. Taking neighborhood walks on toddler time.

40. A little splash of Soda Press Co. syrup in my soda water.

41. Hiking with Ryan amongst wildflowers on Mother’s Day.

42. How Maeve calls pasta with marinara sauce “pizza noodles.”

43. Eating PB&Js on the hiking trail.

44. Crying in therapy.

45. Open play gym mornings at Sellwood Community House.

46. A pizza and ice cream date at Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty.

47. Calling the pediatric triage nurse.

48. Talking to other parents at drop-off and pick-up. Texting with daycare providers. Checking the school app a little too often.

49. You or Someone You Love by Hannah Matthews.

50. Mourning the general demise of X (fka Twitter). Appreciating the perspective that Cory Doctorow provides.

51. Thinking about opting out of optimization culture.

52. Learning that Maeve was biting other kids at daycare and not being able to do much about it. The way her pediatrician laughed it off and said, “oh, my son did that and now he’s an honor student.”

53. Friends visiting Portland. A zoo date with the Grays and the Whitakers. Casey and her boys dropping in for a visit. Pizza on the patio at Dimo’s with Kris and Jack, and then with the Orjalas.

54. Watching the Danny McBride back catalog after cracking up at the silly antics of The Righteous Gemstones. Becoming an Edi Patterson fangirl. Vice Principals. Eastbound and Down.

55. Trader Joe’s canned Lentil Vegetable Soup.

56. Soaking at Knot Springs and eating lunch at Nicholas on a day date with Ryan.

57. Using the neighborhood theater as a concession stand. Eating popcorn and Sour Patch Kids while watching movies at home.

58. Going for walks to observe a nutria near the local creek and naming them Norm.

59. Maeve calling for us from her crib in the mornings: “Mamadada!”

60. “Multitudes” by Feist. Her Song Exploder episode about making the track “In Lightning.”

61. Ezra Klein’s formula for a good day.

62. Visiting my sister in the hospital after my niece was born and bringing her a bag of Trader Joe’s Popcorn with Herbs & Spices.

63. Taking Maeve grocery shopping, where she picked out shelled edamame — and then actually ate it back at home.

64. Finally getting covid.

65. Getting strep.

66. Getting the flu.

67. Listening to “Animal Freeze Dance” and “Finger Family” and “Hop Little Bunnies” on endless repeat. Learning from Chelsea Kim Long that I can hide kid music from my algorithm.

68. Appreciating the gift (and joy) of making weird art.

69. Baked farro with summer vegetables.

70. Nightly TV time from 7:30-9:30 pm. Season 2 of The Bear. Beef. Jury Duty. Rap Sh!t. Watching the final seasons of The Crown, Sex Education, Reservation Dogs and The Other Two. Abbott Elementary. The Last of Us. Yellowjackets. Couples Therapy. 100 Foot Wave.

71. Amoxicillin and Augmentin for Maeve.

72. Maeve singing nursery rhymes in her sweet, high voice.

73. Showing up every two weeks for Zoom writing group. Reuniting with the guys in December at a suburban restaurant and having no shame as we did a big group hug. Reading genres that I wouldn’t read without the group’s recommendations.

74. Patio dinners at Flying Fish Co. Maeve’s delight in the little plastic shark she chose from their treasure box. Sharing French fries.

75. Maeve learning new words and saying them over and over until we understood. Her pronunciation of spiders (“sibers”) and puzzles (“zupples”).

76. Buying a new bed frame.

77. Vanilla soft-serve cones for Maeve at Dairy Queen and the county fair. Sharing spoonfuls of my scoops from the local ice cream shop. Giving her ice cream one day for dessert and her telling me it was “too cold.”

78. A week at the coast with my in-laws. Going to the Tillamook Creamery and the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Nestucca Bay wildlife refuge. Shopping in Depoe Bay and tidepooling in Pacific City. Building sandcastles and making fires. Splashing around in the surf.

79. Buying art supplies and little gifts at Collage.

80. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett.

81. Teaching Maeve how to lay down so that I could trace her outline in sidewalk chalk. Drawing shapes and animal outlines so that she could color them in.

82. Tension headaches. Laying on the acupressure mat. Insurance-covered deep tissue massages.

83. Pomegranate spritzes.

84. Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album GUTS. Watching her first in-house Tiny Desk Concert and feeling that pure teenage pleasure at being alive and discovering self-expression.

85. Maeve dressed as a black cat for Halloween. Meeting the neighbors while trick-or-treating. Maeve’s love for holiday decorations, which started with “spooky ghosts” and pumpkins in October.

86. Playing records while making dinner.

87. Going to Chicago to celebrate our fourth anniversary in October. Walking 5 or 6 miles every day. Eating out at Frontera Grill. Shopping and drinking so many lattes. Buying books and clothes. Discovering Remedios Varo at the Art Institute of Chicago. Watching The Daytrippers on the Amtrak ride back to Kansas City.

88. Maeve dipping everything (fruit, noodles, potatoes, chicken, eggs) in ketchup.

89. Happy hour dates before daycare pick-up.

90. Coming late to Laufey and Samara Joy. Loving an old soul in a young voice.

91. Buying occasional coffee drinks from Portland Ca Phe on the way home from drop-off.

92. Swimming and bike riding at Sunriver in August. Staying inside during poor air quality days and playing Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch. A short hike at Lava Lands. Exploring the nature center. Lunch at Timberline Lodge on the drive home.

93. Writing about the books that I didn’t read in 2023.

94. Seeing deer, snakes, woodpeckers and barred owls on our walks in Oaks Bottom.

95. Bringing home cans of Olipop as a grocery-store treat for Ryan.

96. Regulating my nervous system.

97. Listening to the audiobook of Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford, which is read by her and brought me wholehearted joy.

98. Hanging Maeve’s drawings on the fridge. The way that our  9-year-old nephew referred to her scribbles as “abstract art.” My retired friend painting portraits from photos.

99. Attempting to join the congregation of “The Church Of Minding One’s Own Business.”  

100. Exuberant open-armed hugs from Maeve.

You can read all of my lists for past years here.

Categories
Reading

The books I didn’t read this year

I stole this idea (like an artist) from Austin Kleon, who lifted it from John Warner. I love filling up my holds queue at the library and anticipating the books I’ll read next (or the ones I’ll avoid because they’ve gotten too buzzy, as a true contrarian does).

The Japanese have a word for the stack of books you’ve bought but haven’t yet read: tsundoku. I like to think of these purchases as being as important as the books I’ve finished, like little companions strewn around my house (or stacked up in my Libby app) as totems of the reading life as a practice, not a pursuit.

The real exercise may be to see how many of these make it to my best-of-2024 list. Some I’ve already decided to let go, but others I’ve been sitting on until just the right time when I can savor them fully.

Here are 20 books I didn’t read this year, in no particular order:

1. Roaming by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
This graphic novel is sitting on my coffee table after I stumbled across it in the “Lucky Day!” new reads section at my library branch. The liminal time after Christmas is a perfect time to mow through books like these, so I’m not yet counting it out for 2023.

2. Sun House by David James Duncan
It’s been three decades since Duncan’s last epic novel, The Brothers K, which I devoured in my youth with utter delight. The Pacific Northwest has few writers who write as wildly and beautifully as Duncan. I’ve been waiting for a vacation or a quiet season when I can tip straight into this 700-page novel and not come up until I’m done.

3. Saving Time by Jenny Odell
No excuses, except for the impression that the library holds in my Libby app ask to be read more loudly than the books on my shelf do. I loved her debut very much, and I’ll read this one soon, too.

4. Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter
What millennial doesn’t love a takedown of late capitalism? Roxane Gay calls this one “the kind of novel that reminds us that the apocalypse is now.”

5. The Comfort of Crows by Margaret Renkl
I bought a copy of this at Unabridged Books when visiting Chicago and haven’t yet read it, although my purchase was heavily influenced by reading Renkl’s Late Migrations on the Amtrak ride in. I think I’ll wait until spring so I can track local flowers blooming as I read about Renkl’s backyard.

6. Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer
I read about this book in so many places that I can’t remember what exactly caused me to pick it up at the library. Then I brought it home, and it sat on my desk for three weeks. I’m still interested in Dederer’s experiment in grappling with whether we can love the art but hate the artist.

7. The Creative Act by Rick Rubin
Another book purchased while traveling and feeling that heady mixture of freedom and creative possibility. I will get to it. Until then, it’s a friendly bookshelf totem.

8. Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun
This appeals to me as someone who reads and feels deeply about the magnitude of suffering in this world, yet doesn’t identify as a loud, energetic activist at heart.

9. Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter
I’ve just been batting this one down the Libby list until the timing is right, but: suburban intrigue? complicated female friendship? deep character study? Yes, yes, yes.

10. The Light Room by Kate Zambreno
Despite my intentions to critically engage with any new book about millennial motherhood, I finally came to terms this year with the fact that this practice can sometimes increase my sense of suffering, not ease it.

11. The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
After being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this book made it to many best-of lists this year. Which explains why I’m currently 472nd in line to receive access from my local library.

12. Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Another one that caught my eye after Roxane Gay chose it for her Audacity book club.

13. Contradiction Days by JoAnna Novak
See #10.

14. The Upstairs Delicatessen by Dwight Garner
Garner’s sublime Grub Street Diet drove me straight to this book, but the timing just hasn’t been right yet.

15. Rivermouth by Alejandra Oliva
It can’t be a coincidence that I had the intent to read so many justice-oriented books this year, and yet when they came available to me, I didn’t feel prepared to bear additional stories of suffering.

16. Fat Talk by Virginia Sole-Smith
I was big on this book early in the year, when I was subscribing to Sole-Smith’s Substack (and many other Substacks by white women, which are all well-written, but the pace and tone have become a little too insistent for my brain).

17. Period by Kate Clancy
I’ll always champion women knowing more about their own bodies as a source of agency and power, but for some reason, reading this particular book felt less important the moment it landed in my lap.

18. Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri
As if Lahiri’s successful career as an author of short story collections and novels weren’t enough, now she’s writing in Italian and translating her own work back to English. I’m bumping this one up the list.

19. The Book of (More) Delights by Ross Gay
Ryan spotted this one at Unabridged Books on our Chicago trip, and sometime in 2024, I hope we’ll pick up our practice of reading a delight “essayette” to each other before bed as we did with the original Book of Delights.

20. Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
Makes me wish I had a book club. From one blurb: “Beagin channels everything evil, hot, intimate, and funny about spying on people while secretly hoping to get caught.”

What did you mean to read this year?

Categories
Reading

The Pulitzer Project

I’ve been undertaking something I coined The Pulitzer Project for about five years now, in which I read the Pulitzer winner in fiction for every year of my life. There are some real clunkers in the list, and others were already favorites (Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr), but it’s been perhaps most fascinating to read books that I otherwise never would have picked up because of how they’ve aged in the cultural discourse.

I’m currently in the midst of John Updike’s Rabbit series, and it’s a wild, politically incorrect ride. As entertaining and instructive as the books themselves is reading both historical reviews of the novels and more contemporary analyses. As Patricia Lockwood writes:

After Rabbit, Run, the books cease to be interesting primarily for their art but become essential recordings of American life. They continue to be speedily readable – the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires – and perfectly replicate the experience of eating a hot dog in quasi-wartime on a lush crew-cut lawn that has been invisibly poisoned by industry, while men argue politics in the background and a Nice Ass lurks somewhere on the horizon, like the presence of God.

This project has also brought me some beautiful books that I otherwise may not have encountered, like the winner for my birth year (1986), Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.

While I’m not always a completist, I suspect that I’ll keep chipping away at this project whenever I fall into a lull in my reading habits. I loved this take on experiencing “every example of a given thing” in a recent issue of Rob Walker’s newsletter The Art of Noticing:

These Every Single X projects tend not to have a time limit — they’re often ongoing and even open-ended.

And, I think crucially, some are almost destined to “fail” (as things close, things open, the world changes). That’s okay. The project/mission/quest is its own reward. (Plus, I love Ryan Lancaster’s extra rule of not going out of the way, which kind of subverts the whole “mission” idea in a really satisfying manner: you can set any parameters you want!)

Categories
Reading

My year in reading, 2022

I started the year with a burst of philosophical ambition, thanks to Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, a clever and surprisingly quick read that turns the self-help genre on its head. And yet because I am but a lowly mortal, I boomeranged back to the most desperate kind of self-help with Suzy Giordano and Lisa Abidin’s Twelve Hours’ Sleep by Twelve Weeks’ Old, a goofy little handbook that gave us new parents the confidence we needed to start sleep training when the time was right. Scott Hershovitz’s Nasty, Brutish and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids made me smile and daydream about the conversations I’ll have with Maeve as she grows older.

Novels helped me escape, starting with Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, which was a fitting parable about the importance of stories. I further flirted with sci-fi in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, which threatened to break my heart. Kawai Strong Washburn‘s Sharks in the Time of Saviors kept me company in the wee hours while breastfeeding, as did Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring. I finally fell for the allure of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which gave me more relief than I’d expected. Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson kept me glued to the couch, and Vladimir by Julia May Jonas had me howling with laughter and gasping in shock. I loved the beauty and hope (and the nuns) of Lauren Groff’s Matrix. Laura Warrell’s Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm read like a jazz song.

I read a bunch of books on motherhood and art and identity — the central theme of my year. Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers hit a little too close to home, but was devastatingly good. I laughed out loud at the release and the wildness of Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch and liked Amelia Morris’ Wildcat, in a similar vein. Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and The Carpenter provided helpful context that I’ll be thinking about for years. I’m grateful for The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood by Krys Malcolm Belc, a powerful read. Ryan and I both appreciated Courtney Martin’s Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School and we both read Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change by Angela Garbes, too. I hadn’t heard of Jessi Klein before 2022, when I read I’ll Show Myself Out: Essays on Motherhood and Midlife. It was entertaining, but I’d recommend the opening essay (a gold standard, to me) before the entire collection. Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs gave me a lot to think about, although I wish I’d read it in print instead of ebook format. (I’ve written more on a few of these books here.)

A few more memoirs: I’d been waiting to read Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford for a long time, and it was beautiful. I gobbled up Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile, which made me seek out the accompanying playlist immediately. I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy was both tragic and hopeful, and Burn Rate: Launching A Startup and Losing My Mind by Andy Dunn had an incredibly clear description of living with bipolar disorder. Remarkable writing.

I read The Zen of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life by Mark Epstein, M.D., thanks to this review by Oliver Burkeman. I took Sherry Turkle’s The Empathy Diaries off of my shelf for the first time and found myself fascinated by the history of psychoanalysis alongside the author’s own story. Late this year, I read and really admired Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker.

Here are a few final books that didn’t quite seem to fit in other categories: Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage by Heather Havrilesky, which made me work for it, although by the end I appreciated the ride (a fitting metaphor for marriage, perhaps?) I enjoyed Having and Being Had by Eula Biss, an author I always admire. I also read the classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

I’m always eager to hear book suggestions, ideas, and reviews. Send ’em if you’ve got ’em!

Categories
Miscellany

100 things that made my year in 2022

1. Endless amounts of baby spit up. Spot cleaning her clothes, our clothes, the couch, and every pillow we own. Running laundry and then more laundry.

2. Taking delight in simple joys like small-batch jam and cordials.

3. Courtney Martin’s essay about contracting covid and reflecting on what the pandemic has done to the stories we tell ourselves about others.

4. Night sweats.

5. Watching local news at 7 am when taking the early morning shift with the baby. Claiming favorite meteorologists and trying to shake off the jingles from local commercials.

6. Taking anti-racist action by moving half of our savings from a big corporate bank to Hope Credit Union as transformational investors.

7. Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

8. Going to pelvic floor physical therapy sessions and learning more about the structure and function of one of the body’s most essential muscle groups. Sarah Stoller on reconnecting with her postpartum body through weight lifting. Working out with Ashley Nowe.

9. Feeling very confused about how to show up in public.

10. PCR tests and booster shots. Lots of first-year vaccines. Still masking and staying home as much of the world moved on from the pandemic.

11. Unlearning the many stealthy, relentless ways that diet culture has embedded itself in my beliefs and habits. Listening to Maintenance Phase, reading Virginia Sole-Smith, and embracing food as nourishment, comfort and fuel.

12. Making lists to attempt to order the chaos of life as a new mother.

13. Rethinking my image of work.

14. Finding solidarity and solace in Erin Gloria Ryan’s newsletter Just Enjoy It While You Can.

15. Good TV at all hours of the day and night. The Sex Lives of College Girls. The Letdown. The Bear. Better Things. Rap Sh!t. Ramy. The White Lotus. Reservation Dogs. Hacks. Never Have I Ever.

16. Reading while breastfeeding and fuming about this country’s systemic failures to provide care infrastructure.

17. Doubling down on my caffeine consumption.

18. Jessi Klein’s pitch-perfect essay on motherhood as the hero’s journey.

19. Getting a second wind after putting the baby to sleep. Watching a ton of TV. Talking it out. Making plans. Making out. Writing newsletters.

20. Quiet walks on the Oregon coast. Dipping Maeve’s pacifier in the ocean to give her a first taste of sea water. Introducing her to sea anemones. Letting her eat sand.

21. Learning to bake a cake and eat it, too.

22. Gobbling down a bunch of books about art, identity, and motherhood. The Gardener and the Carpenter. The School for Good Mothers. Essential Labor. Nightbitch. Learning in Public. Wildcat. Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still.

23. Thinking about non-linear career growth and evolution, thanks to Jenni Gritters. Joining The Writers’ Co-op Patreon community to dig deeper into strategy for my own business. Embracing the idea of the career river.

24. Spending a long weekend with my college girlfriends, sharing our hobbies and secrets and fears and messy selves with each other, as we’ve done now for 13 years, leaving one another feeling better than when we came together.

25. Writing a monthly newsletter and realizing along the way that we were creating a sort of digital baby book to mark our daughter’s growth and emerging personality. Receiving sweet replies from friends and family near and far.

26. Spiraling out in my journal.

27. Embracing the bioregion in my backyard.

28. Eric Carle books.

29. Hikes with Maeve in the front pack. Parents greeting her at the arboretum and in Marshall Park. Stroller walks in the neighborhood. Holding her hands as she toddles down the block and drops to her knees to eat leaves and moss.

30. Identifying and indulging in vacation foods, as inspired by Kathryn Jezer-Morton. For us, it’s cherry Cokes and microwave popcorn.

31. Empanadas and people-watching at the Portland Mercado in late spring. The baby hanging out in the car seat, taking it all in.

32. Playing chase and peek-a-boo with Maeve. Teaching her how to clap, wave and gesture that she’s “so big!”

33. Taking more iPhone videos. Rachel Cusk on taking photos of our children.

34. Breastfeeding in the backseat, on park benches, in exam rooms at doctor’s offices, in bed, on the couch, on a blanket, on a log.

35. Hiking at Oxbow Regional Park and seeing deer, salmonberries, and fairy slipper orchards. Changing Maeve on a bench before realizing there was a changing table around the corner. Eating lunch on the picnic tables at Sugarpine.

36. Growing my freelance business from two to seven clients. Juggling work, business strategy, and the endless daily responsibilities of caring for an infant.

37. Postpartum hair loss. Wearing my hair in a bun more than ever before to try to get ahead of my baby’s grabby little fingers. Finding loose hairs all over the house.

38. Doing what I love in front of my daughter, even when it feels like she’s too young to take it all in. Baking for fun. Journaling in the mornings. Dancing to music. Playing the ukulele poorly. Reading for breadth and depth. Talking it out. Getting outside.

39. Feeling Very Adult when writing notes for the babysitter.

40. Sleep training. Putting on noise-canceling headphones when my nerves were frayed by the process. In the end, finding deep comfort and some wonder in the knowledge that our daughter is learning to care for herself.

41. Making a snowperson on the back deck after a mid-April snowstorm.

42. Playing with a Pentel brush pen.

43. Maeve’s rosy cheeks after a bath.

44. Falling asleep to the sound of a hard rain.

45. Making a regular habit of 8:00 Sunday mass, since we’re up already. Getting donuts after church on the first weekend of the month. Fr. Mike telling us that our daughter has “vacuum-cleaner eyes — they suck you right in.”

46. Maeve’s baptism in May by our dear friend Lucas. Celebrating with Missouri and Oregon family. Tacos and margaritas. Kid-friendly rosaries and toys that recite prayers.

47. Accidentally buying Ryan a birthday card that was meant to be from (or about) a pet dog.

48. Velcro swaddles. Sleep sacks. White noise machines. Watching the video monitor. Taking shifts in the early weeks to get more consecutive sleep. Suffering through the four-month sleep regression. The time when Maeve was a couple of days old and Ryan swaddled her in a confusing blanket with snaps that we later realized was a car seat cover. Maeve napping in my grandma’s coat closet and my parents’ walk-in closet.

49. Breastfeeding in the middle of the night with a red lightbulb in the floor lamp.

50. Eating so much food. Bedtime snacks. Big meals. Getting up in the middle of the night for a string cheese or a protein bar when I was too hungry to sleep.

51. Moving during July, again. Sweating and fretting and putting my daughter in a moving box to entertain her. Learning that our dishwasher has a top utensil drawer.

52. Making terrible line drawings in an attempt to capture ordinary moments in our house.

53. Reflecting on the gifts that my Grandpa Walt gave me and everyone who knew him.

54. Baths with Maeve.

55. Getting away for a weekend and enjoying some time on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. Hiking in the rain. Taking Maeve to the lodge dining room in her car seat. Family naps on the big hotel bed. Having the pool all to ourselves. Splurging on room service breakfast.

56. Movies that made me think. Roadrunner. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Everything Everywhere All At Once.

57. Being stuck under a sleeping baby and trying to savor the moment. Maeve turning to me or Ryan for comfort and sucking her thumb while laying her head on our closest body part. Her using our bodies as climbing towers.

58. Cooking with Julia Turshen for our third anniversary.

59. Near-daily texts from my retired writer and painter friend.

60. Practicing embodiment and thinking about repair as a form of self-care. Injuring my knee and my ankle and going back to PT. Relearning how to re-regulate.

61. Using the Libby app and reading ebooks from the library on my Kobo.

62. Planting annuals in three big planters on the deck. Stepping outside to visit the flowers.

63. Eating Jimmy John’s sandwiches in a parking lot on more than one road trip.

64. Thinking about the ancestors and mentors in my chosen family after reading Jonny Sun’s essay on his high school drama teacher.

65. Buttermilk biscuits and the tall, fluffy buttermilk pancakes from Smitten Kitchen.

66. Thinking about home décor as a “joyful jumble” of art and objects that reflect our lives, not Instagram ideals.

67. Celebrating Lucas’ ordination in Spokane. Invigorating conversations with smart friends and acquaintances. Pizza on picnic blankets in the park. Driving to Coeur d’Alene on the back roads. Indian takeout and kid chaos. Lucas’ mentor telling us that her students wrote a spoof of General Hospital in Lucas’ honor and they called it General Infirmary.

68. Poetry. Ada Limón’s “How to Triumph Like A Girl.” “Islands” by Muriel Rukeyser. Maggie Smith’s “Rain, New Year’s Eve.”

69. A summer babysitter.

70. Taking our daughter on her first flight to visit her family in Missouri. Remembering that the Midwest normal is different than life in the Pacific Northwest.

71. Angela Garbes’ description of her “pleasure-forward” approach to life and mothering.

72. Teaching Maeve to say “ahhh!” so that I could give her vitamin D3 drops. Her giggling when I floated a plastic bag in the air. The surprise of one of her first words being “CATTT.”

73. Finishing the expert-level ropes course at Tree to Tree Adventure Park to celebrate a local friend.

74. Ordering takeout on the first night back home from vacations.

75. Finally getting a custom nightguard to save my teeth and my jaw muscles from grinding while sleeping.

76. Laughing harder than Ryan while watching Jackass 4.5.

77. Celebrating three years of marriage while stuck in a Vancouver, B.C., hotel room with a feverish baby who couldn’t sleep.

78. Trying to live with limitations. Having no working kitchen range for a month. Being without reliable internet access for two weeks. Working with a child underfoot.

79. My first gray hairs.

80. Collecting as many guides as I can find to making art as a parent. Taking heart in the fact that babies aren’t babies for very long.

81. Making a Rubbermaid shoe storage container into a makeshift backyard pool.

82. Taking marriage inspiration from artists Bernd and Hilla Becher and volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft.

83. Giving and getting free items via the Freeya app.

84. Summer bike rides with Maeve in the trailer. Taking Ryan on his first Bridge Pedal. Sharing the bike so that he can commute to work.

85. Sinking into the comfort of a surprising time capsule in the early episodes of Home Cooking.

86. Taking ourselves out for treats after Maeve’s pediatrician appointments.

87. TheraTears eye drops.

88. Eating out as a family of three.

89. Escitalopram.

90. Getting going to feel good.

91. Cheering on Ryan in two cross country races this fall.

92. Going back to Dove antiperspirant after years of natural deodorants.

93. Watching the World Cup with my Ghanaian brother-in-law.

94. Taking an evening walk down Peacock Lane to see the Christmas lights and displays.

95. Maui with the whole Wilmes family. Cousin love in the mornings. Walks on the boardwalk. Fresh pineapple. Island humidity. Fish and grazing sea turtles and bright coral reefs. Playing in the surf at Baby Beach.

96. Not having a hot take.

97. Using my journal for cheerful retrospection.

98. Spotify notifying me that my top song of 2022 was José Gonzáles’ “Stay Alive.”

99. Embracing Dead Week.

100. Hearing the people I love laugh.

Categories
Miscellany

Repair as an act of self-care

photo by Riho Kitagawa on Unsplash

If I had to pick a word of the year for 2022, knowing what I do now about the past 12 months, it would be “embodiment.”

I have not lost myself in parenthood as I feared I might, and yet everything — even the way my brain functions — has changed. Through it all, one of the best practices I have done (and can do) for my physical and mental wellness is to trust the wisdom of my body.

This can look like:

As Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

My 36-year-old body, one that has been shaped and reshaped by life and childbearing and stress and personal growth, can better receive the benefits of movement and nourishment than it could at age 15 or 27.

Lately, I’ve been wondering what it would mean to apply this framework to my home and belongings. I often think about making decisions based on my values through a lens of environmentalism or anti-capitalism or social responsibility, for example, attempting to repair an appliance instead of immediately buying a new one. But what if, say, mending a hole in a sock could benefit my nervous system as well as the planet?

I’m reminded of the Japanese practice of kintsugi, in which cracks in a piece of pottery are repaired by being filled with powdered gold. The mending emphasizes the flaws rather than camouflaging them, adding beauty to the brokenness.

Artist Molly Martin says this about repair (in her case, mending clothing) as an act of care and a reflection on the self:

We carry the knocks of life on our bodies, like an old, much-loved and patched-up pair of trousers. Our wrinkles are a sign of time, of weather and of life. Old age is inescapable, but if we are honest about it, there can be grace and beauty in it. Surely, we can see that this must be so, and when we try to deny it by avoiding old things that are worn, rather than learning to love them, we somehow deny our own reality.

This is the sense of care and intentionality I am trying to live out as life continues to pick up speed and blurs the memories of simplicity imposed by lockdowns and social distancing.

(I keep chanting to myself a new spin on the 90s-era PSA: “Mend, heal, repair.”)

Categories
Art Family

Terrible, but not very terrible

I spend less time writing for myself these days and more time chasing a busy baby away from my books and the compost bin and the internet router. I know this stage in our lives is fleeting, though, so I’m doing my best to stay present to it and to remember these wise words:

“Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World
Categories
Reading

5 good books on motherhood I read this spring

Amidst a bleak landscape for American families these past few months, I have been widening my scope, thinking as little as possible about “parenting” and more about community, presence and care. Here are five books that are helping me feel hopeful, in the order I read them:

The Gardener and the Carpenter
Alison Gopnik

I love the thesis in this book for the liberation it provides both parents and children: “parenting” should not be a job, nor a verb. Gopnik, a child psychologist and researcher, argues that children simply need to be given a safe and stable base from which to explore the world and themselves. (Austin Kleon interprets this roughly as: Give them art supplies and let them go!) Her breakdown of the explore vs. exploit dichotomy gave me a lot to think about in what I model for my child and how I want her to orient herself toward what the world will have to offer her.

The School for Good Mothers
Jessamine Chan

Devastatingly good. (Even if it did hit a little too close to home for the parent of a three-month-old at the time I read it.) I loved the close writing on modern motherhood and all its entrapments, and the bigger thoughts on whose responsibility it is to raise children “well,” and what it means when race and gender and power come into play in the domestic sphere. A brilliant novel.

Nightbitch
Rachel Yoder

Hilarious, a little wild and loose, this novel imagines the madcap life of a stay-at-home mother who has put her art career on hold to care for her toddler… and who fears she may be turning into a dog. Satirical and voracious, this book pushes back on easy tropes and also begs for systemic change in this country. Vivid and funny.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter’s School
Courtney Martin

Martin, an activist and writer whose work I’ve long loved, takes a good, hard look at her own fears, values and decisions about how to raise her daughters in a divided country as she and her husband navigate school choice. An incredibly original, inspiring account of trying to live out one’s values in a country that prioritizes the status quo.

Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change
Angela Garbes

This book is so necessary and such a pure joy: a treatise on the pleasure, power and possibility of treating mothering (a verb that can be done by anyone, of any gender) as the only essential work that humans do. An important perspective on what the pandemic has laid bare: we must (and can) demand more from family life in this country, but we don’t have to wait for a social safety net to start to make change in our lives and our communities.

Categories
Reading

My year in reading, 2021

My social life suffered in 2021, no thanks to the pandemic, but that just meant I had more time to dive into books.

Here are 15 books I read and loved this year, in no particular order:

Monogamy
Sue Miller

Whew, I adored this novel. Probably because Annie’s family is the kind I sometimes wish I were born into: slightly WASPy, East Coast-based, heavy on appreciation of the arts and culture and good food and wine. But Miller is a talented writer, with the ability to braid several characters’ stories into a quiet, seeking, honest novel. Reading this felt like the ideal immersive experience, something I’m often chasing after but rarely find.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Isabel Wilkerson

A stunning book, rich in research and beautiful writing. Caste gives important context and historical background to systemic racism as we understand it today. Wilkerson offers some truly shocking details from history (and the recent past) to build her compelling case that America has always known — has, in fact, been built on — a caste system.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength
Alison Bechdel

A delightful graphic memoir about Bechdel’s lifelong pursuit of self-improvement through exercise, from running to weightlifting to skiing and beyond. Bechdel levels up her third memoir with colored illustrations and a sprawling look at self-enlightenment, her own but also that of Beatnik poets and Eastern philosophers. Funny and searching.

Want
Lynn Steger Strong

I gobbled up this novel. I wanted to live inside Elizabeth’s world, even though it was depressing and sometimes claustrophobic.

Strong’s writing is gorgeous: “I want to tell her that I’m scared I’m too wore out, worn down, that this constant anxious ache that I have now isn’t about my job or kids or all the ways life isn’t what it should be, that maybe it’s just me, it’s most of who I am.”

And a bonus easter egg: Elizabeth is constantly reading as escapism, and her many novel references would give any hungry student of literature a reading list for the ages. 

Expecting Better
Emily Oster

I appreciated this book for its data-driven look at so many pregnancy-related decisions that often leave pregnant people feeling like they have no agency or like they’re being infantilized. I returned to it many times to help provide context to medical decisions and to reassure myself that I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. (For more in this vein, Oster’s newsletter ParentData offers excellent evidence-based information on pregnancy, parenting, and COVID-19.)

Crying in H Mart
Michelle Zauner

This is a heartfelt, appetite-inducing memoir about love and loss, written by a fellow Oregonian. I knew of Michelle Zauner first through her music as Japanese Breakfast and grew to love her witty lyrics and dreamy indie pop. When I read her 2018 essay in The New Yorker, I knew I’d be snapping up her memoir once it came out. This book would be helpful to anyone dealing with grief or difficult parent-child relationships.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times
Katherine May

Gorgeous. I loved how May made the universal wildly personal — as someone stuck mostly at home craving novel experiences, I fell hard for the stories that brought this book to life.

I can see myself returning to this book in future winters that I’ll experience.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
Alexander Chee

Complex, sincere essays about writing and discovering one’s identity. This collection paints a portrait of how life can look when one is unafraid to dig into the bigger questions about what it means to be alive. Chee grapples with these questions as he explores different types of work, the intricacies of tarot, and the frustrations and joys of backyard gardening.

Leave the World Behind
Rumaan Alam

I love Alam’s writing voice, how he provides just enough detail and insight to have me feeling a familiar twinge of realization that in the end (if this is what the end looks like, which this past year has taught us that it may well be), neither race nor class nor wealth nor privilege nor youth will save us. Stellar writing on the trappings, comforts and distractions of the privileged life. 

Detransition, Baby
Torrey Peters

An incredibly compelling novel that taught me a lot about the queer and transgender experience, in all of its complexity and humor. The only thing I sometimes wanted was more plot — as much as I love a character study, these characters sometimes felt slippery and out of reach. That title, though? A masterpiece.

In the Dream House
Carmen Maria Machado

Wow. This memoir is flawless — engrossing, entirely original, compassionate, thorough, groundbreaking. I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll follow Machado’s writing wherever she wants to take me, even when (especially when?) it’s a little spooky and eerie and unsettling for reasons I can’t articulate as well as she can.

H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

A braiding of grief memoir, nature writing, literary analysis and introspection. Helen Macdonald is funny, openhearted and willing to tell her story as true as she can. I loved her lyrical sentences so much, I didn’t care about the answers to all the nosy questions I’d normally have after reading such a book. I respect a memoir (and an author) that willingly shares the grief journey, no matter how messy and muddled it may get.

Priestdaddy
Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood has a beautiful, wild mind with a freewheeling brand of homeschooled genius. This memoir is so loving and weird and hilarious. Her writing is laugh-out-loud funny, which I needed last year more than I realized. I particularly loved Tricia’s relationship with her cautious, capital-M mom and the grace that Tricia extended toward her as a key figure in her life, in all her wackiness and concern.

Know My Name
Chanel Miller

This memoir feels like the future — a searing, courageous account of assault and its aftermath, told with care and deep self-love and uncontainable curiosity by an emerging author and artist. It is a story that we need to hear more often. (I also recommend Miller’s Instagram account, where she illustrates slices of life, bringing incredible humanity and thoughtfulness to seemingly mundane moments.)

Great Circle
Maggie Shipstead

I can’t pass up a Maggie Shipstead novel, and this one is her most ambitious yet. It delivers on its promise, hearkening back to the tradition of the epic novel in a time when so many works of fiction seem designed to scratch a very trendy itch of subverting form.

Great Circle tells the story of a woman determined to live a life true to her own desires, and to chart that course at all costs. Daring and deeply satisfying.

Here are ten bonus recommendations:

Open Book, Jessica Simpson
(Yes, really. Especially if like me, you’re reexamining the reductive narratives we sold ourselves about young pop stars in the early aughts.)
The Overstory, Richard Powers
No One Is Talking about This, Patricia Lockwood
Yolk, Mary H. K. Choi
Luster, Raven Leilani
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl
Planetfall, Emma Newman
Smile: The Story of a Face, Sarah Ruhl
Arbitrary Stupid Goal, Tamara Shopsin
A Promised Land, Barack Obama