Stand Up: (A mental health reminder for introvert parents)

silence-sunset-1379641I’ll rush to defend a friend, but cringe and sometimes fall silent when it comes to defending myself.

I once loved to argue. I am still easily riled up.

When it comes to protecting time to myself, to write, to sleep, to speak to no one, I am apologetic yet fiercely determined.

I explain to my husband that my attitude of distant exhaustion is not so much a reflection on him as it is a dried up, empty-tank-feeling in me.

I can’t decide whether I do a bad job of standing up for myself or if I’m just in the throes of how *difficult* it is to actually stand up for myself as a mother of two young children.

“What are you looking forward to when the kids are older?” my husband asks me.

He has already told me he’s anticipating hikes and boy scouts with our eldest. I’ve made a reference to my eagerness to learn at all over again when I begin homeschooling my son. Then, with a deep sigh, I say “Is it horrible that I’m really just looking forward to having more time to myself?”

I don’t want to go join a convent. (Though a week in one would be amazing!) I don’t want to leave my kids at my mom’s and drive to Canada (okay, last month, there were several panicked days when the idea stuck to me) and I don’t actually wish that I had a different life altogether, I just feel like the fight to protect a little space for myself, to preserve a few minutes for writing in my day, a snatch a sliver of time to exercise my body, is more effort than its ultimately worth.

I looked at my face in the mirror the other day and thought, “Okay, I see it. I’m aging.” And I wondered if I should feel some other emotion than resigned. My new beauty slogan has been “the most beautiful thing on your face is your smile” which I think is a paraphrase of Mother Teresa.

This is what I’m trying to say today—I don’t think that standing up for yourself has to look like a heroic, top-of-the-cliff-with-your-hair-flapping-in-the-wind kind of moment. I don’t look like Rosie the Riveter every day of my life. But I love myself. I love who I am after I’ve finished a new short story. I love the excitement that flows through me when I’ve finished organizing some part of my life. I love the gentle grace of a weeded garden bed and the peace that settles on me when I glimpse it from my window. These moments of preservation for my art and my sanity are not extraneous time-sucks. The non-essentials just might be the essentials. And if I don’t successfully protect them every single time, that’s okay, too.

Because I might just be living the hardest year of my life. (A mother of four told me that her first year with two kids was her more difficult, and I think I’ll take her word for it).

So I’ll keep standing up for myself. I’ll try to defend this tired, worn-out woman, and keep finding ways to nourish and delight her spirit. I’ll do my best to shield her time from busywork and facebook binges, from disorganized bouts of spinning her wheels, and also especially from moments of self-condemnation. Because she really is doing her best. And “best” is not perfect. It’s usually messy.

Stand up for yourself when you can. I say this especially to us parents who are used to giving and giving and giving to our kiddos. Find something that delights you. Rest when you can, even if it’s ten minutes on your back in the living room listening to a white-noise app. (Yes. I do this.)

So I’ll keep standing up for myself. I’m okay knowing I don’t have to look like Wonder Woman while I’m doing it. I’ll just try to keep some semblance of a smile on my face so that I can be beautiful the way Mother Teresa sees it.

I’m worth the fight. My heart and my mind are worth the fight. I want to stay filled up and strong for my husband and kids.

So I’ll keep standing up for myself.

The Art of the Do-Over

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What would you do over, if you could?

My husband and I were recently talking about things we truly wished we could do over again. He’d wished he’d attended high school prom with the girl who’d asked him. I wished I’d actually dated a particular boy in my senior year of high school, despite my parents’ objections—because, looking back, I’m pretty sure he was my first love. But I was an extremely obedient daughter and I did what I thought was best at the time.

Do-overs. Regret is a slow, sweet poison that we enjoy as a self-stew (because we’re complicated creatures), but the truth is, most regrets are pointless unless we use them to wise-up or, even better, go try to fix a past wrong through an action we take in the present.

Yeah. Like messaging an old friend on facebook out of the blue and apologizing for a painful mistake I’d made. In my case, it was poorly executed judgment from a position in which I should have been impartial. And although the talk was totally awkward, it ended with kind words and exchanging photos of our children—peace offerings.

Regrets and wishes for do-overs give me the reminder I’m not static, living my life on one unwavering course. I screw up, I hurt people, I act with oblivious carelessness, but you know what’s really encouraging? Apologizing has got a hell of a lot easier. I can’t explain it. Maybe my pride got majorly deflated in college after someone called me out for gossiping. (Yep. That stopped me in my tracks. I had an artificial fever for about 24 hours. Pure shame). Or maybe the art of begging forgiveness truly grows easier with practice, just like everything else.

The conversation about do-overs left me uplifted, almost like a pep-talk. I saw that my regrets had altered how I live now, guiding me toward what is truly valuable, exhorting me to embrace integrity, honesty, transparency and awkward humility.

I like to think that God is sanding down my rough edges so that the person I’m becoming is more loving, less rushed, and porous to the reasons for joy and laughter that surround me daily.

Dare I ask…What would you do over? Does your do-over bleed into anything you might do today that would heal the world, even in a small way?

Beauty will save the world, you guys. I believe it.

I See You (a Father’s Day letter)

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Beloved,

I see you. Up in the morning with the little one smiling on your shoulders as she rides through the house in the hiking backpack carrier that you wanted for your birthday. You yearn to bring our babies along on your outdoor adventures. The beauty of that desire does not escape me.

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I see you. Curled up on the couch in the morning light with the baby snuggled into the hollow of your chest and neck, sleeping in peace and safety. The empty milk bottle sits on the coffee table, a testimony of our teamwork, sharing her midnight feedings.

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I see you. Rushing home, changing your clothes, diving into last-minute dinner prep. You talk to our preschooler with loving interest. He knows he’s important and precious. You sing and make silly faces at our baby. She knows daddy is fun and safe and reliable.

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I see you. Laboring after sunset, building shelves, painting doors, sawing metal rods to fit the closet. You work tirelessly and gently. You don’t snap at me or speak tersely at the end of the long day. You give as if it doesn’t hurt or wear you thin. How is that possible?

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I see you. Smiling at me from across the kitchen, admiring me and finding me beautiful, desirable, even in those moments when I’m frantically scrubbing dishes or mopping spit-up off of the floor. You see beyond my harried exhaustion and admire my eternal, unchanged self leaving me astonished and humbled. Ashamed, too. Because there are many days I can’t hope to be as good a partner to you as you are to me.

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I see you. Holding my hand, kissing my lips, meeting my eyes with acceptance and grace. Together, we have lost unborn children, become landlords, traveled to Europe, constructed homes in blistering heat, birthed two little humans, hiked tropical jungles, grieved the death of loved ones, collaborated on art, co-led a Bible study, savored live theater, blended our literary tastes, pulled each other back from black depression, designed a place for creative community, fought and made-up and stonewalled and lashed out and begged for forgiveness, sat still and held each other close while we witnessed a river flowing past us.

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I see you. The father of my children. All five of them. “Father” is just one of the important roles you play. But it’s never been more valuable to me than it is now.

Happy Father’s Day. I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone but you.

Home

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Home. I’ve wrestled with this word over the years. I’ve defined “home” as the haven where I felt safest, the circle in which my siblings and I received our first years of schooling, the nest I made with my husband after our wedding, the sacred cradle that my babies entered a few days post-birth…and on it goes.

Living in Seattle and yearning for a larger home has been one of my life’s most difficult and grueling challenges. Raising children is definitely harder but, seriously y’all, house-hunting is insane! Entering the forays of the real estate market in this day and age is truly my next level of “adulting” and it was not such a fun one. Three months into my pregnancy with our second baby, my husband and I sat down in a coffee shop with a real estate agent and set sail on our ship of dreams.

Nesting hormones combine with home-hunting...

Nesting hormones combine with home-hunting…

I fantasized about a sunlit kitchen with big windows, a sprawling yard for romping kids, an open living space to host my writer’s group, a comfortable dining room for family dinners and small musical performances.

We got an account set up to send us house listings. Gorgeous color photographs of homes that we could (in theory) afford. And we tried them on, mentally slipping our family inside the rooms. We were picky, snobby even, passing over many homes as insufficient without ever stepping inside.

Then the realization sank in. We were not giving those “less than perfect” houses enough of a chance. This hit us about the same time we realized the sale price of a house in Seattle was dramatically different from its list price. Those places we’d thought were “in our price range” were selling at numbers well beyond our reach.

Depression. I launched a new ship of dreams, this time over murky waters. Dark fantasies plagued me, whispering that I’d have to take my family far beyond Seattle’s city limits if we were to afford anything appropriate for us. I desperately wanted to stay in Seattle, to be near our parents and give them a close relationship to their grandkids. To be near the church community I have grown to love dearly.

Make-believe Time with Mommy. We are aviators.

Make-believe Time with Mommy. We are aviators.

I renewed my stubborn, fierce vow that I’d rather live in a little house in Seattle that needed some TLC than in a glittering, spacious house in the suburbs. My husband and I dug in our heels, sent a few panicked emails to our realtors (thanks for being gracious with, Casey and Tyler!) and  accepted that we would likely purchase a fixer-upper. We strove to become smarter and tougher. We began imagining remodels. We considered moving walls and cutting out windows. We were determined to not let this crazy housing game be the one to beat us.

Life moved right along. My body swelled as my baby girl grew inside me. A month before her due date, we pulled the plug on our home search. It was time to wait and rest and welcome Little One. The stop of our search felt like another defeat. We’d missed our deadline.

But then our sweet girl arrived healthy, happy, and perfectly thrilled to be the fourth occupant of our townhouse. Our mailman hand wrote “welcome, new resident!” on the outer envelope of her social security card. And, after all, the little princess only needed about as much space as a shoe box.

Me and the adorable monkey.

Me and my monkey.

A few months later and we re-entered the real estate game with our three-year-old running all over the houses, turning on the bathroom taps to watch the water run, and our baby strapped to one of our chests or her car seat. We visited multiple listings a night. We reviewed new listings within minutes of receiving the emails.

The hardest part was the ones that got away. Five homes touched our hearts and we moved to make an offer. Then we watched with sick stomachs and dark minds as they were snatched away from us. After each loss, we drew a deep breath and began again.

I don’t know what made the house on 136th St different, but I will say this: The first time I walked through that house’s rooms, I felt something say to me “This house has loved people,” and I instantly answered with “And I want to continue loving people with this house.”

We placed our offer and I prayed hard. I remember pausing on the stairs in my parent’s basement, kneeling down and begging Jesus to fight on our behalf if he wanted that home for our family. And then, after dinner, James and I were standing in our little dining room and the phone rang. “I have good news!” Casey told us. “It’s yours!” I cheered. It must have been a youthful cheer because Casey thought I was our three-year-old. After we hung up the phone, I started crying. I get all the feels. That should not surprise you by now.

We just signed the papers to close on the house!

We just signed the papers to close on the house!

The “what ifs” merged suddenly into “this is yours.”

Let’s rewind time for a sec. My first few years living in our townhouse were ones in which I felt happy to hole-up. It was just me and my husband. It was solitude and space for my work and creative projects. I hosted a handful of gatherings with friends. (A memory flashes up of a Twilight party in which a dear friend arrived dressed as from Rosalie Cullen, a vampire jilted-bride in a white gown, wielding a cleaver. You are amazing, Michelle!) A few years later, my son arrived and commandeered the second bedroom. Soon, we were full. of life and toys and child-gear. Hosting dinner for more than one or two people caused an upward surge in my blood pressure.

I dreamed, in a way I never had before, of dinner with friends and their gaggle of kids, of gathering that thrived with life and rang with joyful laughter. My heart was changing, but my home could not accommodate its wishes.

Back to the present. The house on 136th St sat nestled on a little cul-de-sac. It’s front was not flashy, but it’s interior showed a hundred touches of someone who loved natural light just as much as I did. Two pictures windows, one in the dining room and one in the living room, looked out onto lovingly tended garden. Two skylights were cut into the ceilings. A covered patio stretched beyond the family room, where children could play and families could eat.

He put yogurt "shampoo" in his hair while I was packing.

He put yogurt “shampoo” in his hair while I was packing.

This home is a gift to us. A chance to start anew. We’re currently painting, unpacking boxes, learning to cook in the new kitchen, installing closet shelves, making a to-do list to fix the slow leak in the kitchen sink, put insulation in the crawl space, and stopping every now and then go look around and really see this home of ours with grateful, swelling hearts.

My son getting a wagon ride with Grandpa.

Getting a wagon ride with Grandpa.

I’ve been musing over my friends and community as I’ve navigated the choppy waters of house-hunting. Some of my house-hunting friends have yet to buy their home. Some have moved out of Seattle. Some have found their home and are settling. Some are content to rent for now. Some have beautiful established homes of their own. Some are still living with family. I know that sharing my own family’s story will likely bring joy to some and a twinge of frustration to others.

All of that said, this is what I can offer. Friends, those of you still dreaming, hoping, praying for your next home, I wish you grace, endurance, and strength in the process. Those of you who are settled, may your home be ever a place of life and love and incredible memories. And this is what I can offer to those of you who know me:

My home is getting ready for you. We’re preparing a place to relax, a shelter for sleep, a zone for your kids to play, a table to gather around. We’re getting ready to welcome you in every sense of the word.

This isn’t just the story of how the Stephens family got a house. It’s the story of how we are getting ready to love more people.

What’s So Funny? (Part 2)

Welcome back to my exploration of humor and what makes things funny! Ha!

My current head-scratching surrounds the what, why, and how of making a scene that causes the audience or reader to laugh.

My last post explored humorous elements found in The Wise Man’s Fear. You can read Part 1 of this series here.

This time, I’m investigating some humorous parts of the Disney-Pixar Film, The Incredibles.

So without further ado…

theincrediblesExamples of Comedy/Humor from The Incredibles

1. Fro-Zone Needs His Suit and His Wife Needs Him at Dinner

The super hero character Fro-Zone wants his Super Suit for a quick trip out to save the world. His wife never appears in the scene, but her voice from off-stage is self-assured and indignant that her husband is trying to slip away. A large portion of the married population can relate to her feelings. When Fro-Zone shouts that he needs to suit for the Greater Good (a claim that seems a bit hard to trump) his wife counters with “I am the greatest good you are ever gonna get!” The wife wins the scene, at least for the moment. We feel the tension in Fro-Zone’s need to be a hero, which makes his wife’s resistance even funnier.

Watch the Fro-Zone Super Suit Clip

Why this is funny: The wife redefines the Greater Good by using that title on herself. The high stakes of Fro-Zone’s need for his suit make her a somewhat unwitting obstacle to his saving the world, all in the interest of saving the romance of her marriage, which is also funny, because it resonates with memories of many marital disputes.

2. Eccentric and Hilarious Side Character

Edna Mode, the film’s fashion designer for superheroes, is a barrel of laughs. Her affected speech and accent is not the only thing that creates this. She is also strongly opinionated and pushy in her decision-making. She takes the wild personality of a fashion designer stereotype and connects it to the career of outfitting superheroes.

Watch the Edna Mode “No Capes” Clip

Why this is funny: Edna is larger-than-life. Her speech about why she will not allow her clients to wear capes is laugh-out-loud funny because she scientifically describes something that we, as a modern audience, never thought of–the practical dangers of getting capes caught in a rocket or in a hurricane, etc, and we are shocked and surprised by it. Edna’s snappy disgust with the fashion disaster ties a perfect bow on the package. Having Robert (Mr. Incredible) present in the scene gives us the reaction of a “normal” person to Edna’s strangeness, giving the context for very enjoyable comedy.

In summation…

I read in the 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar (rule #10) that we have to take apart the things we like in order understand how they work. This is my attempt to follow that rule with regards to things that I have found funny.

From these examples (including those of Part 1), I’m deducing a few, but by no means exhaustive, rules to humor.

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A. Cleverness and wit are amusing to us. When a smart person deduces much from tiny details that we might have otherwise missed and uses them to cast light on another person’s mood or motive, we see the subject of scrutiny made to feel naked and uncomfortable and it’s humorous to us.

B. Strong reactions to abnormal behavior are amusing to us. If a beautiful naked woman walks down the street, we might imagine hearing some hilarious comments. “Someone give that girl a bathrobe!” “Just looking at her makes me feel cold!” “I’d say somebody lost a bet!” It’s these knee-jerk reactions that make the situation hilarious. “Breaking the law never looked so darn good!” See what I mean?

Oh also, I noticed that references to human nudity feature in several of my examples. That might cast some light on how my own mind works, as well as an additional rule that C. Nakedness is amusing to us, too.

Hope you enjoyed journeying with me!

I’m still eager for thoughts and ideas on humor, so send ’em to me if you’ve got ’em!

What’s So Funny? (Part 1)

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Humor. A thing worth officially studying, per a recent decision of mine. And I’m going to share my notes with you. Warning: This is a somewhat nerdy post.

In my attempt at efficient observational study, I’ve selected the novel I’m currently reading, The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. This isn’t a particularly comedic book, but the three friends Wil, Sim, and the main character Kvothe demonstrate several instances of comedic scenes that have made me burst out laughing, so I thought I’d start here. As I racked my brain further for funny examples, a couple scenes from the Disney-Pixar film The Incredibles also surfaced, and I’ll use dissections of those in my Part 2 sister post.

I will do my best to avoid overall spoilers of either book or film, while giving context as best I can to the particulars of each scene.

wisemansfearExamples of Comedy/Humor from Wise Man’s Fear

1. Kvothe is Humbled by Alchemy

Sim is helping Kvothe with his newest scheme by concocting him an alchemical potion that will render Kvothe temporarily immune to the burn of fire. As Sim explains the limitations of the creation, Kvothe shows himself arrogant and refuses admit that he knows nothing about alchemy. Sim tells him that adding water to the fire-proof potion will render it flammable. Kvothe scoffs at this. Sim prods Kvothe to help him add water and, lo-and-behold, the container rises into three-foot-high flames.

Sim set down the crucible with a slight click and looked at me gravely. “Say it.”

I looked down at my feet. “I know nothing about alchemy.”

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 266)

Why this is funny: We’re prepared for the laugh because Sim already tried to get super-intelligent Kvothe to admit ignorance in this field. Kvothe is proud. When Sim’s demonstration proves the facts and Kvothe repeats the line that he previously refused to utter, we feel satisfaction in his humiliation and feel it doubly so because we hear the line itself repeated again. “I know nothing about alchemy.”

2. Kvothe is Poisoned by the Plum-Bob

This is a prank played on Kvothe by one of his enemies, right before he needs a clear mind for an extremely important interview with University staff. The plum-bob poison causes Kvothe to say anything and everything that he thinks and feels, without the usual social filters to trap the inappropriate bits from coming out. He reveals the extremes of his revulsion for his sworn nemesis (Ambrose), his attraction for his classmate and friend (Fela), and repeatedly performs actions on the impulses of comfort or reflex without the cautioning thought for how they might be awkward or rude (i.e. spitting on Sim’s floor, stripping off his clothes because he’s too warm). During these antics, the reaction of those who witness Kvothe is strong and vivid.

“Fela, you are just gorgeous,” I said. “I would give you all the money in my purse if I could just look at you naked for two minutes. I’d give you everything I own. Except my lute.”

It’s hard to say which of them blushed a deeper red. I think it was Sim.

“I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?” I said.

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 77)

Why this is funny: We witness a bizarre alteration in Kvothe’s regular behavior and laugh out loud when we see the reactions of his friends, who are doing their best to neither mock him nor explode with indignation. At first glance, I thought it was the weird circumstances that were comedic, then I realized it’s the friends’ reactions to the situation that bring out the fullness of the comedy. We enjoy seeing the astonishment and embarrassment of others more than we like to see the strangeness itself.

3. Denna Wins at Corners

Kvothe’s pretty female friend, Denna, is visiting with him, Wil, and Sim at the Eolian (a music-venue tavern). The men are having a few drinks and playing a card game called Corners. They invite Denna to play with them. She says she doesn’t know how to play, but she’s a quick learner. They excitedly teach her the rules, then sit down to play. Denna plays a hard, fast, and expert round of Corners, revealing she knew the game all along. The men realize they’ve been fooled into assuming her ignorant (perhaps because she is a woman?). What was more, their eagerness to teach the little lady how to gamble blinded them completely to her competence.

(After the hand of Corners is over)

“Well that was instructional,” Wil said as he slid a jot toward Denna. “I might need to lick my wounds for a bit.”

Denna lifted her glass in salute. “To the gullibility of the well-educated.”

We touched our glasses to hers and drank.

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 158)

Why this is funny: As a reader, we’re also prepared for Denna to know nothing about the card game, so we’re just as surprised as the men when she unveils her skill. We applaud her trickery and charade of ignorance (though I think if she hadn’t outright lied about knowing the game, and just asked for them to explain the rules, the deception would have been even better). Denna has also thrown off the stereotype that women do not know the sly ways of gambling card games, which makes her a more dynamic and interesting character.

4. Sim and Wil Marvel at the Mystery of the Opposite Sex

I think the comedy in this is almost self-explanatory from the title for an adult audience, but it’s worth digging deeper. In this instance, the beautiful Fela is dressed up for a date to distract the reviled Ambrose while Kvothe, Sim and Wil stage a raid on his rooms. She appears completely lovely from Kvothe’s point of view, but another woman in the scene, Devi, steps forward and coaches Fela in how she should hide most of her cleavage at the start of the evening, then bring out a little more of it gradually as the evening wears on so that Ambrose has the illusion that he’s “getting somewhere.”

“This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” Wilem said quietly.

“Do all the women in the world secretly know each other?” Sim asked. “Because that would explain a lot.”

(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 280)

Why this is funny: This humor caters to the age-old challenge of trying to comprehend the opposite sex. I observe that the comedy is typically weighted on the side of men trying to figure out how women think and behave and this side of the coin is also embodied in the example I’ve given. It’s amusing because Sim assumes that the instruction Devi gives to Fela is a secret known by all women, and implies that women team up and share tactics for how to seduce and bewitch men. Once the men suspect this is reality, they are left bewildered and perplexed. It also implies that Sim and Wil wonder if similar techniques have already been applied to them, individually, leaving them to guess whether their love-interest was genuine in her behavior, or simply embracing strategy. The handling of this kind of humor should be done delicately (which, I would say, is generally the case thus far in this book), because it has the potential to become sexist. Jokes about men who can’t understand the full wiles of women ring true for many, and this seems to make for a long history of laughs.

I’ll be continuing this study with a couple scenes from The Incredibles and I’ll do a small summation of my observations there. In the meantime…

 

If you have any examples of something funny and what you thinks makes it funny, I’m all ears! This study of humor is going to be a long one for me, and I’m just getting my toes wet.

Wholehearted

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Hey there.

Sorry I haven’t kept in touch.

My excuse is seven weeks old and, in this mama’s star-struck eyes, she’s absolutely perfect.

She arrived on a November morning a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I can’t stop feeling thankful for her. She’s all I wanted for Christmas this year.

A friend mailed me a little box with a bracelet in it for me and a pair of pink leather moccasins for my daughter. The gifts were not necessarily meant to be connected, and I think the meaning of “wholehearted” (see the photo at the beginning of this post) that my friend was implying is the way that I put all of my heart, soul and spirit into what I do. But as I looked at the little shoes in the bracelet’s message, my eyes filled with tears.

Because this time last year, my heart was anything but whole. It was broken. A piece eaten out for each baby that I’d brought to the beginning of life but lost before I could hold him or her in my arms.

And now my girl, who will one take her first steps in these little moccasins, is making my heart whole again. She’s my balm of healing.

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The Thanksgiving Baby

I’m no longer subject to fearful thoughts that zing my bloodstream. Somehow, now that she’s born, I feel I can trust again, breathe again, and that I’m finally free to love her. I didn’t realize I had a love-block, but it hit me as a held her while sitting in my rocking chair. I pressed my nose against the soft fuzz of her hair and apologized. For being so scared that I wouldn’t let me heart wrap around her tiny soul.

Perhaps this grief and fear is natural and the time-delay in bonding is nothing to be ashamed of, but I want to love with courage and not shy away in fear, even though this is the harder path. I want to be wholehearted, like my new favorite bracelet tells me to be.

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Smiling already!

Life for me is filled with busyness, but this blog post is the first writing I’ve done in a long while. My three-year-old is not sure whether he loves his new baby sister who has finally come out of Mommy’s tummy or if he’s so jealous he’d rather pinch her hard when the parents step out of the room. We are actively encouraging him toward the loving side of the debate and setting strong boundaries to help him adjust to his new world.

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Big Brother

I’m taking joy in learning how to be even more efficient with parenting two kids. “Let’s sing songs while I burp the baby!” “I’ll scrub the toilet while the toddler plays in the bathtub and the baby naps in her bouncy chair!”

I’m also slowly trying to figure out the easiest things I might cook for dinner. And I’m aware that this intense season of having practically *no time* to myself is just that, a season.

I finally miss writing. My creative energies were so funneled into my daughter during her pregnancy, I stopped needing to create in other ways, which was a bit disconcerting. But now the itch is back. I just need to be patient as I seek moments where writing can slip back in.

WOTFGood and very encouraging news: I entered a fantasy short story in Writers of the Future and received an honorable mention. This is a wonderful thing due to the contest’s prestige but also because it means my writing it good enough that some high-profile judges considered it noteworthy. Anyway, if you want to see my name in the official announcements, search “Elise Stephens” under the Honorable Mention category here on the WOTF blog.

Sometime in the near-ish future, I’ll be releasing a new edition of Forecast, my Young Adult fantasy novel, and the updated cover is stunning. Excited to share it with you when it’s ready!

All right, friends. There’s your update. Thanks for your patience with me and for all of your faithful encouragement. And since it’s traditional to set some goal or mindset at the beginning of the New Year, I’ll make mine:

Wholehearted.

You, Me, Oui

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A beautiful Japanese maple preens its Autumn plumage in my parents’ front garden. A larger version of this tree, but with bright green leaves, had filled the broad multi-paned window of the Shoreline house where my parents first brought me home as a baby. And, to continue tradition, in the small triangle of soil that borders the edge of my townhome’s communal courtyard grows a little Japanese maple with pink and beige speckles on a field of pale green. The heritage of the window tree has been passed from one generation to the next.

A reader-board hangs above a local lumberyard that drive past multiple times a week. It currently says, “I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious.” This description seems to fit so much of who I have been for the last eight months or so.

My sister has a Thanksgiving countdown on her phone’s calendar. She regularly tells me how many days are left because she’s eagerly waiting for more than the holiday festivities to begin. We’re both waiting for something big.

I meet a steady stream of women who struggle through the dark, hidden woods of a grief that I have shared with them. I recently discussed genetic infertility tragedies at a bridal shower, feeling a strange sense of This isn’t okay to talk about here–but maybe it’s fine, because we’re comforting each other.

What am I trying to say?

This.

I’m pregnant.

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Pic taken September 6, 2016

The news will not come as a surprise to some of you, but I have never made the official announcement here on the blog. Is it because I’m “stitious”? There are many days I feel this is the case. Don’t jinx it.

Did I delay releasing the news until now because I don’t want to bring hurt to the women wrestling in the darkness of their own childbearing journey, who cringe every time they open social media for fear they’ll see more mommy bragging photos? My answer: probably, at least in part.

My baby girl’s due date is November 24-Thanksgiving day. My sister is thrilled out of her mind. This particular holiday seems such a fitting and perfect due date. To be able to associate my baby’s arrival with a day of gratitude helps me feel the rightness of this.

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Little girl clothes!

I’ve had three baby showers for this girl. One was thrown by the ladies in my writing circles, one was thrown by my sister and mom, one was thrown by friends from church. I’ve washed a folded and laid into drawers a wide assortment of beautiful, dainty, and darling clothing items that were design especially for a little female human.

All of this makes her arrival firmer, something I can almost touch.

A mother asked me last week if I’ve stopped feeling anxious about the safety of this baby. I laughed coldly. No. That’s why I want her to arrive so very badly. To hold her in my arms and feel her breath against my skin and look at her tiny eyelashes and just know she is mine here on this earth.

Something changes in a person when that person longs and hopes for a thing four separate times and only gets to hold a tiny child at the end for one of those times.

At each ultrasound, I tell my story in a few short words. “What number pregnancy is this?” the sonographer asks me. “Five,” I say (referring to my current pregnancy). “Five pregnancies. One live birth.”

This girl will be my second live birth. She’s 36 weeks as of Thursday October 27th, she kicks and moves more than her brother did, and I can’t remember feeling so tired. (Of course, I didn’t have a toddler to chase while I was pregnant the first time around).

My son kisses my tummy. He sometimes brings little toys and holds them at navel level so he can show them to Baby Sister. He doesn’t like to witness me with any other babies in my arms. Ever. He’s learning to share playthings with other children. He sings songs along with me and agrees that he’d like to sing them to his sister.

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The big brother

It will be a major adjustment for him. I know this. I also believe that a sibling is among the best things I could ever give him.

Am I happy that I’m pregnant? Absolutely. I wish I were giddy. I wish it often. A strange lingering guilt trails me: shame that I cannot seem to bravely embrace a wild, fragile hope. That I somehow lack courage to be joyful for something so good, for this rainbow baby who is the bright beauty and color after the gray storm of death and despair.

My obstetrician, bless her, said the happiness might not become real for me until I hold my daughter in my arms. I was only a few weeks pregnant when she told me this and the future event of Birth felt so distant, my heart sank.

There have been moments, though. Seeing my daughter move on the ultrasound and noting her adorable nose and perfectly formed feet. Hearing my husband chuckle as he feels her kick against his hand on my belly wall. Watching my mother cry as we cut into the “gender reveal” cake and she saw the pink icing.

I predict that I will hold my daughter for the first time and burst into tears. Of gladness. Of relief. Of the delight in knowing I can move forward with my family.

A tree has always been a symbol of life and endurance for me, and seeing my family’s heritage of Japanese maples reminds me of this longstanding strength. Many people have told me that I’ve been so strong through all of this waiting and grieving and hoping and waiting and hoping.

Maybe so.

What I know is, I’m feeling really ready for this baby’s birth. I’m want that moment to come.

Anytime.

She Gets Married

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The bride

She entered the world when I was seven and a half years old. People often marveled at our ability to stay close, even with such an age difference. But we did. She was my baby sister. To this day I still accidentally slip up when calling after my son, using her name instead of his. She was the first little life I helped to care for.

I wrapped florist tape, snipped stems and wire, poked and rubbed and chaffed my fingertips till they felt more like sandpaper than skin while I made the corsages and boutonnieres for my sister’s wedding. Little bouquets of seeded eucalyptus, baby’s breath, burgundy ribbon, and a small pink tulle flower with a jeweled center.

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Bride and groom with family

My sister designed her gown with her mother-in-law. She was covered in hundreds of these tiny pink cloth flowers. She was covered in smiles and tears and prayers. Her husband cried as she came down the aisle. I always count tears from the groom as a good sign.

This was my first time watching another sibling get married. I had my own wedding to initiate the Saba Kids Get Hitched, and of course that morning in September eight years ago was awash in the excitement and emotions of joining lives with the man I loved.

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Bride and groom

But now I watched my sister make those same decisions and felt the fibers of my family and those of her husband’s beginning to knit together. I gained a new brother. I embraced a new sister. I felt the deep need for unity and teamwork to make the day’s event come together smoothly.

When my sister and her husband exchanged vows, I saw their heartfelt earnestness. They used no microphone so the vows were audible only to them and those who stood in the first row of wedding guests. Luckily for me, family sat in the first row. I listened especially close to the groom–that protective older sister thing never really goes away–and I saw a man ready love, serve, and be honest and true.

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First dance

Their first dance was a tango. She inherited her wonderful hips from my family line. It was the father-daughter dance that made me break down and weep. I saw a little girl and her daddy together in a parent-child relationship for its final time. Afterward, she would be a married woman, learning new skills, shouldering new responsibilities and priorities, no longer a child in her parents’ home. A definitive legal adult age is a nice thing, but it seems to me that these huge life milestones are what force the change upon us.

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The bride and her girls

 

 

 

The day after the wedding a bunch of family gathered to celebrate the wedding couple, eat leftover wedding food, and pray for the newlyweds. After hearing us pray for a supportive community to look after my sister and her husband, for forgiveness and grace that the couple would need to have for each other, and for overall help with the trials and tribulations of married life, my grandfather commented that we weren’t being happy enough. We should be celebrating! This was a wedding, for crying out loud!

Funny thing is, I disagree with him almost entirely. Of course a wedding is a joyous time. We danced our hearts out, threw golden balloons into the air, ate doughnuts, and waved glow sticks wildly into the night (my son’s favorite part) as we felt out hearts swell with joy.

But to say a wedding is just a happy celebration without recognizing it as a sober life decision is just crazy. I don’t pray on behalf of my sister’s married future because I fear for the worst. I pray because I know how hard it is to merge lives and dreams and goals and I want her to have all the help and resources she can get! Isn’t it easier to party with someone than it is to help them pick up the pieces of a hot, broken mess?

Again, I’m not predicting doom, I just feel that being realistic is of tantamount importance. Two people just decided to share everything and they happen to be imperfect, flawed, and prone to selfishness (of course, I include myself in all those adjectives, too).

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Mother of bride, me, stepmother of groom

My son knows that the wedding was a huge celebration. He grasps his multi-colored bouquet of glow sticks that I keep saving for him by putting them in the freezer and shouts “Hooray!” as he remembers the send-off of the newlyweds at the end of the night. He’s happy for the prospect of another uncle to spoil him.

Yet even my three-year-old knows the deep importance of the people who are present during the hard times. I might not take him on the most enthralling outings every single day (thank God for grandparents with the energy to escort him to Seattle’s outdoor fountains on sunny summer days), but my son runs to me when his heart or body hurts, when he’s frightened or too tired to self-regulate his emotions anymore.

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My son and my cousin

I braided my hair along one side of my head, a tribute to the beautiful braided hair that ran across my sister’s head. She and I both tucked baby’s breath into our braids–we’ve liked to match each other for most of our lives. I want to still be there for her, to help her, hold her, advise her, and I also know I have to let her go. When I visit my parents’ house, she won’t be in her room downstairs, sitting on her bed under a dozen glowing paper stars while her fingers work at some creative project. That room downstairs isn’t hers anymore.

I grieve for that change even as I hope for the new future with happy expectation.

A thousand blessings on you, my sweet sister.

 

*Thank you to Orion Ifland for these wonderful photos!*

Those Words

just-me-and-my-shadow“I can only tell you what my journey has been. Yours will be different,” my mentor friend, Brian, tells me as I grip my coffee cup across the table from him.

We’re meeting because I wanted advice. Wisdom. The next steps. I wanted to sit at the feet of a sage and become excited about the next climb ahead of me.

The reality? There’s a lot more to life that is more vague and undefined than we ever expect or, as I sometimes prefer to call it: frustrating, especially when we’re looking for clear-cut answers.

That afternoon, Brian shared with me some of his greatest achievements and deepest disappointments as a writer. He honored me with his open humility. I felt admiration for the heights of success and renown that he’d reached, even as he revealed his limitations.

Brian’s advice for me was to know my own risks—to only accept a new venture if I was prepared to deal with the worst possible outcome—even if that awful scenario seemed unlikely. The rest of my responsibility was hard work, diligence, and constant openness to learning, all of which he knew that I took very seriously.

Then, somewhere in the thick of our conversation on storytelling, comics, ideas, equality of opportunity, and the philosophy of writing, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m proud of you.”

I froze. These words trigger a particular response in me. They’re the words I wanted to hear from my dad, but didn’t hear enough. I can’t tell you how much I think my over-achieving academic record probably had something to do with trying to prove my intelligence and competence. Then again, I’ve also been aggressively competitive from a very young age (at age six, I refused to be pleased by a splendid production of The Nutcracker because I needed to have a dress that was at least as beautiful as the onstage dancers). I do not blame my dad for all of this. He and I have also made our peace since then, in case you’re interested.

But there I was, hearing someone saying those words. I’m proud of you. Had I really earned them? How could someone so accomplished and smart take pride in what I’ve done? I’m only a young writer, still floundering in so many senses of the word.

“Even if I had never met you,” Brian continued, “I would be proud to know people like you exist in the world.”

Tears edged the corner of my eyes. It’s not as though I start every morning in a state of neediness that aches for a man to speak these words to an inner part of my psyche. It’s that these words sing a special song to the heart of a young girl, and I still hear that song loudly as a full-grown woman.

I left my meeting with Brian and had a much shorter to-do list, a not-very-long-at-all checklist, and not nearly as many answers as I’d thought I’d have to my questions. And as I walked back to my car, I felt an assurance for myself, my worth, an approval for my goals and outlook. I felt the glow that someone I so highly respected had applauded the person I am and the writer I am becoming.

Instead of giving me a list of things to do, Brian looked at my mind, heart, and dreams and said they were good. When I think of it that way, it seems to me that shedding tears is a very natural response.