33 best books for expecting parents

I read about 70 books about birth and babies while pregnant, even though everyone told me not to read anything.

These people, clearly, did not know me well. Telling me not to read something is a surefire way to move a book to the top of my reading list. Furthermore, what a wild season of life to tell me not to read things. Why would I not read about one of the most significant undertakings of my moderately young life?

Having done this all of this reading and heeded none of these warnings, I now understand the intent behind this caution: There is a TON of fear-mongering around pregnancy and birth, and I am glad I stayed away from that (as best I could). In sum, womenfolk: Don’t let people scare you about pregnancy and birth. (Also, don’t let health care providers patronize you.)

With that caveat, having read about 60 books, here are the 33 that are worth your time and unlikely to cause paroxysms of fear and stress, if there is a wee babe on the horizon.

Image result for active birth janet balaskas

Best 8 books on birth and pregnancy

  1. Active Birth, Janet Balaskas. Clearly explained advice on how to move well while laboring. It is an older book from the UK, and not as widely read or mentioned in these parts, but I’m so glad I found a used copy. Excellent advice, with helpful images and descriptions.
  2. Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Ina May Gaskin. Read it for the happy birth stories! Even if you don’t go the hippie/drug-free route, it’s just lovely to read about births that are joyful occasions—and to discover all of the manifold, various, and beautiful ways that babies come into the world. Ina May will help you relax. This is the main thing that I wanted someone to do for me, as a first-timer contemplating birth: Someone help me relax. Ina May is that saintly someone.
  3. Expecting Better, Emily Oster. This rational book was one of the only things that helped me calm down during my anxiety-ridden first trimester. Highly recommended.
  4. Real Food for Pregnancy, Lily Nichols. Comprehensive and somewhat urgent; I wish I had read it at the start of my pregnancy instead of toward the end! Nichols presents an evidence-based approach to nutrition for pregnant women, avoiding much of the tired fear-mongering that’s present in so much common advice for American women (e.g., paranoia over raw eggs, soft cheese, seafood, etc.) and instead prioritizing health through whole, natural foods (with some interesting additions, at least for American eaters, like her high praise for organ meats, bone broth, eggs, and seaweed).
  5. Nurture, Erica Chidi Cohen. Read this instead of the dreadful What to Expect. This is the calming, clear, modern overview of all pregnancy and birth-related matters that you want to leaf through and use as a reference throughout your nine months.
  6. Birth Matters, Ina May Gaskin. More of a manifesto, and likely a contributing factor into why I decided to have home births (in 2019 and 2021), but it’s a holistic, woman-and-baby-centric text, decrying much of the institutional, overly medicalized trends in American obstetrics.
  7. Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn, Penny Simkin. Another great, clear, non-hysterical guide to these nine months and the bleary newborn months that follow.
  8. Mindful Birthing, Nancy Bardacke. Admittedly, I don’t think I used any of these meditative practices while giving birth, but they sounded so nice! A more mentally strong woman may derive more active benefit from these practices. Still, I enjoyed knowing about the power of the brain over sensations of pain.

Image result for the little virtues natalia

Best 8 books on motherhood/postpartum life

  1. The First Forty Days, Heng Ou. A beautiful book that encourages women to follow the Chinese tradition of resting and staying in for 40 days after birth: eating rich, nourishing foods; resting; snuggling with your baby; and being pampered. A much wiser and better approach to the postpartum period than the typical American Instagram mom, who likes to brag about how she ran a bunch of errands immediately after giving birth.
  2. Ina May’s Guide to Breastfeeding, Ina May Gaskin. I found this to be so much better and less judgmental than the La Leche League’s Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which assumes that all women are stay-at-home moms who wouldn’t dare leave their baby alone for even a moment.
  3. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott. Wry, sarcastic, and heartwarming memoir of raising a baby boy as a single mom.
  4. The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg. Beautiful little essays from the Italian-Jewish writer Natalia Ginzburg, who is wise and elegant and comforting all at once.
  5. Little Labors, Rivka Galchen. A perfect little book to read in those bleary postpartum days, because it’s charming and episodic. You can easily pick it up between feeds. Galchen’s observations of motherhood are the perfect blend of sweet without being sentimental.
  6. Daybook, Anne Truitt. The diary of a talented American sculptor, who finds time to care for her children while also creating art. Encouraging to those of us who have other interests outside of child-rearing.
  7. Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich. A strident series of essays from my favorite second-wave feminist.
  8. And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell. Another humorous memoir that would be a fun, lighthearted book after having a baby of your own.

*There may be some great books about fatherhood, but I didn’t read any! Dads, feel free to chime in.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Best 7 books on the history and culture of parenting

  1. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz. Reading this history of how Americans have defined childhood was so helpful and orienting, especially when I contemplated where many of my deeply held beliefs about parenting came from.
  2. Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, Jennifer Traig. Delightful. Jennifer Traig presents a lighthearted—and yet thoroughly researched—account of parenting through the ages. Smart and sarcastic and informative.
  3. The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development, Richard Weissbourd. A Harvard psychology professor’s perspective on how American parents are messing up their kids by trying to be their friends.
  4. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte. Not uplifting! Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling overwhelmed, all day, every day.
  5. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior. The most compelling argument, which Senior cites from an American historian: We have no parenting folkways, and so we are always muddling around, trying every trend and suggestion, when it comes to childrearing.
  6. To the End of June, Cris Beam. A chastening account of the dire straits of the U.S. foster care system.
  7. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley. A quick and thought-provoking book that looks closely at South Korea and Finland’s public schools and considers why U.S. schools lag so far behind.

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

Best 10 books on baby raising

  1. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, Kim John Payne. Sage, calm, and inspiring. We still have so much to learn about raising little people, but this book has served as a beacon. I plan to return to it over and over again, like a liturgy, in the hopes that it will continue to inform my parenting.
  2. Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep, and Wake Up Happy, Kim West. The title says it all. (Given to us by our life-changing doula!)
  3. Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool, Emily Oster. Calming and reassuring, much like Expecting Better. Emily Oster puts many early parenting fears to rest with her clear-headed analysis. (I also love her Substack ParentData, which I read religiously.)
  4. Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More, Katy Bowman. Our movement goals for our family in a nutshell! Also introduced to Katy Bowman by our aforementioned doula. Very inspiring and important.
  5. Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman. People have lots of opinions on this book, but I think it’s just great parenting advice, from start to finish. Non, je ne regrette rien!
  6. Montessori from the Start, Paula Polk Lillard. I really appreciated this book in the early days of babyhood, and it encouraged me to make many different decisions about how we interacted with our firstborn and set up our home for him. There’s also a lot of overlap with the Montessori baby-rearing philosophy and the natural movement ideas from Bowman, as mentioned above. Our second-born also gets the benefit of being looked after in a bonafide Montessori classroom, which is so lovely.
  7. Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv. Terrifying and extremely motivating book that urges you to get your kids outside.
  8. The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, Meghan Cox Gurdon. I mean, of course I was going to read aloud to my babies, but this book made me even more firm in my dedication to the practice.
  9. Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina. Helpful, readable survey of what we know about how children’s brains develop and how we can help them flourish. Medina confirms research I’ve encountered elsewhere (e.g., have conversations with your infant; don’t tell your kid that she’s smart but rather that she worked hard; the best parenting style combines clear boundaries with gentle, consistent discipline, etc.) The book is broader than the title suggests and also offers practical, compassionate advice on how to fortify your marriage, your sex life, and your general sanity as you embark on parenthood.
  10. Baby-Led Weaning, Tracey Murkett and Gil Rapley. Instead of pureed baby food and rice cereal, we followed this method of giving babies real, whole food to start with—and honestly, it’s not really a “method,” because it’s what parents always did until companies invented baby food. It worked so well with Moses, and he’s a great eater at 2.5. Fingers crossed that this method will also work with Felix.

What am I missing? What have you read and loved on the subject of bringing babies into the world?

Pyrrha, in Memoriam

Pyrrha Louise Pratt
May 2011–December 2021

You were not a brave dog. You carried your trauma with you all your life. We rescued you from an abusive situation in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and in retrospect, we should have chosen an easier dog. You needed so much.

When the foster dropped you off, you were terrified and drugged. You had just been spayed, and you looked out of your mind. You were so afraid. I gated off our tiny kitchen and sat on the dirty linoleum floor next to you for several hours, speaking quietly to you while you came out of your narcotized state. You trembled with fear when I touched you and could not look me in the eye.

 

Pyrrha and me, a few days after we adopted her (May 18, 2012).

I walked out of the room for a few moments. When I returned to the kitchen, I was astonished to see you standing on top of the kitchen table. Somehow, noiselessly, you had leapt up there to look out the window. Like a cat, you didn’t knock over the chairs or any of the glasses on the table. I shrieked: It is a surprising thing to see a full-grown German shepherd standing on your kitchen table. This terrified you further, and you jumped off the table and clattered to the floor, running back into a corner where I could not reach you, more scared of me than ever.

I started to wonder if we had made a grave mistake. This was not the faithful, friendly companion Guion and I had dreamed of. This was a damaged dog. But I wasn’t willing to admit I’d made a hasty mistake. I was committed to your success—and to not looking like an idiot, after pining for years for a dog of my very own.

 

 

Summer 2012.

I devoted myself to turning you into a semi-normal dog. I continued to read dog behavior books voraciously. I took you to three different obedience school classes. I chose a vet far from our house because they were known for their gentle, compassionate care for nervous rescue dogs. I organized carefully choreographed dog play-dates. I walked you every morning for an hour before work while we worked on your leash reactivity. I decided we would take in a rotating door of foster dogs, because other dogs were the only thing that made you happy and relaxed.

After half a year of this routine, I came home from work one evening and you wagged your tail when you saw me—the first time you’d ever wagged your tail. I saw the first glimmer of promise.

Guion supported me in these endeavors wholeheartedly and was nothing but gentle to you for a decade. You responded, however, by avoiding him at all costs. He was a prime suspect in the household. I was regarded as your guardian angel. You wouldn’t eat if I left the room and Guion was still in the kitchen. He could barely pet you.

The two of you developed a truce around food, however, and one of our trainers said you could be allowed to beg from the table, but only from Guion, so that your bond could strengthen. This just turned into you being very bold about demanding snacks during dinner and staying dangerously underfoot whenever he was cooking bacon. He did not love you, but he did tolerate you with admirable patience for a very long time.

. . .

You adored other dogs. Some of the happiest years of your life were the years we had foster dogs in the house.

Brando and Pyrrha (March 2013).

Brando was your particular favorite: a huge, hulking black German shepherd who was as gentle as a lamb. You followed him around like a love-struck teen.

After Brando came six more shepherds, including a feisty puppy, Laszlo, and an incredibly gentle shepherd, Draco, rescued from a hoarding situation in West Virginia, where an insane woman had 41 dogs in her home.

Our riskiest foster was a dodgy reddish male we called Rainer. He was a stray with serious dog aggression issues but thankfully saw you as a friend. You and Rainer scuffled a few times, but nothing serious.

Pyrrha and Rainer

Even though you were still touchy and anxious, we began to see glimmers of improvement.

. . .

And then there was Eden, our final foster.

She’d come from a family in Northern Virginia who had underestimated her charisma and surrendered her to the rescue. She landed on our doorstep after failing the K-9 evaluation exam given by a Virginia police force, being considered “too excitable” for police work. Again, this should have been a red flag. But we fell in love with her and decided to keep her.

Pyrrha and Eden (January 2014).

I thought that adopting another dog would help you chill out, but Eden was definitely not the right kind of dog. Eden’s particular brand of crazy only made you more anxious. Your leash reactivity got worse. You got jumpier around strangers. You started barking all the time in the yard. It took me a while to recognize and admit this. You two were cute but absolutely terrible together.

Eden lived with us for four years, and we failed her too, as we also “underestimated her charisma.” We loved her, and she wore us out. She worshiped Guion and became a gifted Frisbee dog. You loved to play “murder” in the backyard every afternoon, a game that consisted of growling at each other and tearing at one another’s throats in mock rage. But before we got pregnant, Eden found a new home.

Pyrrha and Eden (July 2015).

We thought you would be sad when Eden left, that you’d look around the house for her forlornly, like she did when Brando was adopted. But no. You have always been concerned for your own welfare first. Callously, you just stretched out on the back deck and acted like nothing had changed, like you hadn’t just lost your sister of several years.

. . .

When I got pregnant, you were my constant walking companion. Our movement-minded doula insisted that I walk at least three to five miles every day, and so I did, with you at my side. We’d take long, silent walks all over town, through most of the city parks and in and out of almost every downtown neighborhood. Late in the pregnancy, I took you on some trails at Pen Park and had to pee every hour. There were no bathrooms in sight, so I’d squat in the brush and tell you to stand guard. You did, coming up to sniff me at first and then you’d wait patiently until I finished.

You were always my favorite creature to walk with. You never pulled on the leash. You always strolled at the perfect pace (even if you stopped a little too often to smell every tuft of grass or every fallen branch). You were calm and gentle and just the right level of energy on an hour-long walk. In your prime years, you were happiest out on a very long stroll with me.

. . .

You were attached to me in a crippling way. You couldn’t relax if I wasn’t around. You never fully trusted other people. Guion said you sometimes wouldn’t eat when I was out of town. At home, I couldn’t so much as shift in my chair or exhale deeply without you coming over to stare at me. It sounds charming, to have an animal so devoted to you, but it’s easy to recognize it as a handicap. I was never sure how to teach you to care about me less.

. . .

When our first baby was born, you were distressed. You’d been separated from me for two days, and our baby was born at home, which meant you’d been confined to the basement for a day and a half, with your least-favorite person, Guion, coming down to feed you and let you out. I was not accessible and was suddenly attached to a strange, mewling creature.

In those dramatic first weeks, I thought we would have to surrender you. You could not relax when the baby was in the room. We’d let you sniff him, but then you’d continue whining and pacing, circling him with rising anxiety. I felt incredibly nervous and upset whenever you and the baby were in the same room, and I’m sure you sensed it. We were trapped in a negative feedback loop.

Pyrrha and Moses (November 2019).

But in time, slowly, you adapted. For all of your deep-seated anxieties, you’ve always been an incredibly gentle dog. I’ve known so many anxious dogs who resorted to aggression, but you never did.

You’ve even had a few Lassie-like moments. On one occasion, I was vacuuming and Moses was down the hall, crying in his room after a nap. I couldn’t hear him. But you went down the hall, nosed the doorknob, and then came back to me and stared at me pointedly, and then walked back to his door, as if to say, Lady, do something. That creature needs you.

Because we respected you, we were always very careful to give you space from the children, and you took it when you needed it. But more often than not, you chose to be very close to the babies, especially during meal time. I’m not sure you ever loved them, but you were unfailingly gentle. You’d greet them every morning, often with a quick lick to the head or hand, and then go curl up on your rug in the hall and sigh and watch the family chaos unfold.

You became a third-class citizen when the kids arrived, and yet you never complained. You accepted your lowly status gracefully. You were the easiest dog in the world, and even still, you didn’t get as much attention as you deserved. The walks grew less frequent. The individual attention nearly vanished. And yet you remained as sweet and calm as ever.

. . .

You were always a beautiful dog. I always felt like I could take credit for it, as if my genes somehow played a role in your attractiveness. People often commented on your beauty when we walked. You were always slinking around like a panther. You looked scared most of the time, but regal. Like a queen who had lost her bearing through some unspeakable tragedy.

Your coloring is the classic shepherd black and tan, but you grew lighter with age—and not just at your muzzle. Your entire coat has lightened; the black saddle was flecked with gray, the tan on your legs was nearly white. It’s as if you were fading slowly, making yourself softer.

[german shepherd in morning]
Pyrrha on our last walk together.

Pyrrha, you were not the easygoing, faithful companion my husband wanted. You were not the bold obedience star I had hoped for. You were not the fun-loving family dog ready for rough-housing.

But you were better than we deserved. You will always be in our hearts, and in mine especially.

Good girl, rest in peace.

Another home birth story

Guion, Moses, and I are very pleased to welcome the newest member of our family: Felix. He arrived at 6:44 a.m. on Saturday, July 31, in the following fashion.

We went to bed early on Friday and tried to wind down. I wasn’t feeling like anything was happening and was feeling frustrated. Even though Friday was his official due date, I was very tired of being heavily pregnant at the end of July and hopeful that we would have another timely boy (Moses arrived the day after his due date). Aside from very regular Braxton-Hicks contractions, nothing else seemed to be happening.

As we read in bed, we suddenly discovered an apropos moment of “meta-confluence,” the made-up term that Guion and I use to refer to a strange reference or resonance found in two different works of art or media. Guion was reading W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn, and I was reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s new history of the Sackler dynasty, Empire of Pain. Within a page of each other, Sebald referenced St. Felix, and Keefe mentioned that Arthur Sackler named his second son Arthur Felix. Guion looked at me and said, “It’s a sign. He’s coming tonight.” I still didn’t believe him, but I wanted it to be true.

I was very restless in bed, so Guion went upstairs to sleep in the guest room. Even though I’d closed my eyes for an hour or so, I woke up around 11 just wired. I was wide awake and full of energy. I even had the completely illogical and completely out-of-character thought that I should just get up and go for a run (at midnight, 9 months pregnant). It was around then that contractions started to feel a little painful and crampy and I got up and started preparing the house for a birth. I started timing them a bit myself and then walked upstairs and told Guion to wake up; things might be happening for real.

Even still, I was in denial. My contractions were coming about two minutes apart and picking up in intensity, and I was still telling myself that maybe this wasn’t the real thing. When I called our midwife to give her an update around 2:30 a.m., I asked her if maybe I was just in prodromal labor. She just started quietly laughing at me on the phone. “Prodromal labor, that’s a good one,” she said. “No, this is real.” Within an hour, our same birth team for Moses had assembled: Kelly, our fantastic midwife; Sara, her marvelous assistant midwife; and Meredith, our God-given, extremely gracious doula.

I spent the early part of labor standing and bouncing on the birth ball in the kitchen. Pacing the kitchen and gripping the counter was comforting to me. I was trying to meditate on the famous image of the Hokusai painting of the wave, which I had just seen the night before at my parents’ Airbnb. Visualizing the contractions as riding that precise wave was partially helpful. Guion and Meredith rubbed my back and pressed my hips and encouraged me through each intensifying contraction.

From there, I moved into the living room, where the birth tub had been set up, and this provided some welcome distraction and relief for a time. I wasn’t able to stay in one place for long, though, and soon moved back and forth from there to the bathroom to our bed. In contrast with Moses’s birth, which was frankly a traumatic fog (even though an ultimately positive experience), I felt so much more lucid this time around. I knew what to expect, and I knew it would get harder before it got easier, but I wasn’t as frightened.

Another difference with this labor and Moses’s was the fact that this time, I experienced much longer periods of rest between contractions. This alarmed me some, as I worried I was regressing or not bringing Felix out into the world in the right way. But the rest was very welcome at the same time.

I continued moving around the house and felt that things were intensifying. I focused on changing the register of my yells, which had been so high-pitched with Moses, and trying to send them down and bring Felix out. I would still resort to high screams from time to time and have to correct myself repeatedly, but I think some of the more primal yells began to become effective. Guion remarked afterward, “You tapped into something… wild.” I remember feeling so grateful that my parents had taken Moses to sleep at their Airbnb that night, just as a trial run, because I definitely would have woken him up with my “vocalizations.”

I returned to the tub for a few pushes but felt like I couldn’t stay there; I needed a stronger, more stable position, and I felt like standing. I got out of the tub and told Guion I wanted to stand and push. With my arms wrapped around his neck and shoulders, I pushed and, praise God, Felix’s head came out. At this moment, I heard him start to cry, and the birth team all started laughing. I couldn’t see it, of course, but they said he was swiveling his head around like The Exorcist, looking around and wailing, before the rest of his body was out. In another blessed push or two, he was out. Sara caught him and handed him to me and guided us to the sofa, where we rested and marveled.

This time around, I felt so much more joy and relief and accomplishment, due in large part to the fact that Felix took about six hours (and only about 45 minutes of pushing), compared with 23 hours with Moses and nearly 5.5 hours of pushing. Felix was a whole pound bigger than his brother, clocking in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and yet the birth and recovery have already been so much smoother. Power of the body being ready the second time around, I suppose!

We’re so grateful for another positive, affirming, and empowering home birth experience and for the incredible support of our midwives and doula. Moses is mildly interested in his new baby brother and adapting well to the new environment, thanks to a lot of help from my parents this week. (He seems to be much more excited about the present that “Felix” got him: a tool set.)

We’re resting well at home and enjoying figuring out what the two-boy life looks like, filled with gratitude and that still-familiar mixture of exhaustion and awe.

For your ears only

I belong to the kind of obnoxious large family who believes we are both more interesting and more hilarious than all other people. We are so invested in this belief that we hardly take notice of newcomers.

Our conversations are composed of long strings of inside jokes, vulgar sarcasm, and pointed but unserious interrogations. God have mercy on a stranger at the dinner table. It is best to just buckle up and go along for the ride. My long-suffering husband and brother-in-law are accustomed to our merry brand of family solipsism by now, but they will often excuse themselves to “run errands” (code for “get a beer and decompress about how exhausting Farsons are”).

I felt immediately aligned with David Sedaris when I heard him read from his essay “Now We Are Five,” in which he says “though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.”

Because our stories are so cryptic and laced with interpersonal signs and symbols, we are not the most hospitable storytellers. We find each other deeply amusing. Dropping a single reference (that time Dad made Aunt B a bikini out of an old curtain, that time Kelsey said she was “proud to be an American” on the block at the swim meet) elicits instant laughter and applause. Our method of discourse is, naturally, highly enjoyable to us, but I admit that this is not the practice of the gifted storyteller.

Gifted storytellers are, by instinct and by nature, welcoming. They can swiftly adapt a narrative to an audience. They can manage the references and edit the metaphors at will, customizing a story for maximum comprehension. They fine-tune the doses of insider information depending on the crowd.

Storytellers must be skilled in this kind of narrative shape-shifting, being both willing and eager to look up from the table and beyond to reach listeners they may not know intimately. They know when to turn the volume up or down on a particular character or plot detail, depending on who is listening. For different people in different rooms, the shape of the story can change dramatically. I admire this flexibility and wisdom in storytellers, this capacity for empathetic telling — even as I confess my long-formed love of a tall tale told only for blood relatives.

(Adapted from this week’s issue of Story Matters.)

. . .

Guion has instituted a new Sunday tradition: croquet in the park with friends. Every Sunday afternoon, we have been gathering for a few games while the babies and kids roll around on picnic blankets and we try to have a few snippets of conversation. It has been a spirit-lifting tradition in a time otherwise marked by seclusion and anxiety.

. . .

“For the vast majority of human beings, religion is the only path leading to a spiritual life and an ethical conscience. Without religions there would be no such thing as human coexistence or respect for the law or any of the essential covenants that sustain civilized life. One very great mistake, repeated many times over in the course of history, has been the belief that knowledge, science and culture would eventually liberate man from the ‘superstitions’ of religion, until progress made religion obsolete. Secularization has not replaced our gods with the ideas, knowledge, or convictions that might have taken their place. It has left a spiritual void that human beings fill as best they can, sometimes with grotesque substitutes or multiple forms of neurosis or by heeding the call of those sects which, precisely because of their welcoming and tight-knit nature and their meticulous plan for all the instants of physical and spiritual life, offer balance and order to those who feel confused, lonely, or lost in today’s world.”

— Notes on the Death of Culture, Mario Vargas Llosa

. . .

Currently Reading

  • Weather, Jenny Offill
  • Cross-Cultural Design, Senongo Akpem
  • Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, David Shipler
  • The Undying, Anne Boyer
  • A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion

Favorite board books that aren’t Goodnight Moon

Goodnight Moon is great and creepy as hell, don’t get me wrong. (Goodnight… nobody…) And Moses loves it. But there are also a lot of other wonderful board books for babies that we’ve discovered, beyond Goodnight Moon and other similar dependable classics (which you will surely be given multiple copies of when your baby is born, e.g., Runaway Bunny, Corduroy, etc.).

I also dislike many of the “modern” classics for babies (Guess How Much I Love You, On the Night You Were Born, Love You Forever, etc.). Personally, I find them a bit insipid and narcissistic—and just, well, boring. If you’re opinionated about infant reading material like I am, here are some slightly less well-known and more interesting board books we’ve enjoyed with Moses.

 

  1. Little Owl Lost, Chris Haughton. Striking, modern illustrations. Moses has loved this one since he was very tiny. A favorite, despite the predictable narrative (why are all the baby books about the threat of losing your mother??).
  2. Global Babies, from The Global Fund for Children. Particularly in this season of quarantine, Moses has been mesmerized by faces. He stares at this book silently for the longest time. These global babies are his only friends!! Per Montessori injunctions, I also think it’s important to show babies real images (clear photographs) along with illustrations.
  3. Mini Masters series from Chronicle Books. It’s never too early to turn your baby into an art critic! Moses loves these clever little board books that introduce him to the impressionists. The authors have created a short rhyming story to pair with the paintings, which I also love. And Moses is particularly taken with Matisse.
  4. All the World, Liz Garton Scanlon. This one makes me weepy right now, because of how much I miss normal life and the close company of other human beings. It’s moving without being saccharine.
  5. Some Bugs, Angela Diterlizzi. A hit! Delightfully illustrated with a fun rhyme scheme. And it ends with an array of all the bugs shown and their proper names. Moses gets a kick out of this one.
  6. I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen. Sardonic and fun. Moses loves the back-and-forth of the dialogue and somehow seems to know that this one is funny.
  7. Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. The follow-up to Brown Bear from the same author/illustrator team. Moses has loved this one since he was very small, displaying particular affection for the lion and the leopard.
  8. Let’s Find Momo, Andrew Knapp. This is his current favorite: The vivid photographs and activity of finding Momo the border collie and other real-life objects on every page is delightful.
  9. Found, Sally Lloyd-Jones. A very sweet rendition of Psalm 23 for kids, from the author of the Jesus Storybook Bible.
  10. Good Morning, Farm Friends, Annie Bach. We were sent this cheerful book by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (see below), and Moses was inexplicably obsessed with it.

 

Also, I assume I’m one of the last parents to learn about this, but have you signed up for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library?? Dolly. What an American treasure. In participating cities, the program sends your kid a free book from birth to age 5. It also appears to be fully operational ITUT* (*in these unprecedented times = an acronym I’m really trying to get off the ground), since we’ve still been getting one book each month. Moses loves them! A real blessing from Dolly, as our library has been closed for several months now.

What are some of your favorite off-the-beaten-path books for babies?

Formlessness and a first birthday

I talked with Kyo recently while ironing a pile of summery clothes that I wonder if I’ll ever have the occasion to wear. (T-shirts and ugly slippers rule the day.) We used FaceTime but both agreed that video calls were soul-crushing. As human animals, we are motivated to fill the grievous lack of in-person interaction with calls: calls for work, calls for friendship, calls, calls, and more calls. Our days fill up with scheduled conversations.

Kyo remarked that these conversations, as a consequence of quarantine, have become incredibly boring. We’re all doing more or less the same thing: There is nothing new to report. We don’t go out. We look around our house and wait for something to happen. We try to balance work and the other beings we have to care for. Why have these calls at all, then? Because we don’t have a better alternative. Because none of this is normal or natural. Because we are hungry for flesh-and-blood connection. Because the cheap substitute is all we have. We agreed on all of this and more. Even still, it was nice to “see” him.

. . .

For several nights in a row, gigantic European hornets congregated in our living room. The first night, when Guion trapped one, we considered it a fluke. He asked me if he should kill it, and I was all: No, the delicate ecosystem! Every blessed creature has its place, its sanctified role to play! Do not lay a hand upon this ungainly bug! But then the next night came, and three more hornets found their way inside, one after the other, and I changed my tune. Fear struck my heart. Was this how we were going to live out the rest of the pandemic? With these flying marauders? And he asked me what to do with them, and I said, Kill them now, fast, and be merciless. Hang their bodies from the lintels; send them all a message.

(We’re still not sure where they’re coming from or why, but Guion suspects there is a nest in the chimney. He blocked a small hole after a quick inspection, and we’ve been three days with no hornet invasions. Fingers crossed.)

. . .

Moses turned one this past weekend! It has been such a delightful year with him. He acquires new skills and interests every week. He wants us to know that he’s very busy and has a lot of important work on his plate: stacking wooden bowls, talking to babies in board books (his only friends! Sob!), caressing shrubs, and singing along with his favorite song by the Talking Heads (“Psycho Killer”: thanks, Guion).

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Eating his cupcake:

He has been our little light in this gloomy time.

Change your mind

Over the past few years, I keep telling myself that I am going to read less because I want to read more slowly. I continue to fail at this, but I started the year with the weighty final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, in an attempt to force myself to slow down. It’s 1,200 pages long, and I’m a little over halfway done, and loving the tedium. I don’t know why I find him so addictive and riveting. He took a 300-page diversion to discuss young Hitler, and I was just rapt, every sentence, every page.

. . .

“This is what learning is, seeing that which lies outside the confines of the self. To grow older is not to understand more but to realize that there is more to understand.” — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Book 6)

. . .

The faintest hints of spring lift my spirits: a few brave daffodils blooming, birds singing in small bursts, evenings that seem a little less dark. I am looking forward to being out in the world more in this spring and summer. We were so much indoors last year, in those blurry newborn months, and I crave the hot sun on my skin. I feel like we missed it last year. I’m looking forward, particularly, to taking Moses out into the garden and introducing him to our plants. I am eager to start a little herb plot and get his “help” with it.

. . .

In other news, I continue to be very much into our baby. Moses is a sunny, flirty 9-month-old now, spending most of his days pulling to stand on furniture, falling down and whining about it, and babbling to himself or anyone who will listen.

Things are so much easier now than they were in those early months, and I can confidently say that I recommend motherhood to anyone who is on the fence. Do it! Have a baby, if the Lord wills. Those first few weeks, I did feel, a little, that everything was ruined. This is no longer the case! We are so fond of our little blond boy and more than a little obsessed. He is a delightful labor, seems well worth the effort.

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Pete

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My beloved grandfather went to be with his wife, my dear Ma-Maw, on January 2. Following is the eulogy I gave for him at his memorial service.

It is a strange thing, to suddenly be without any grandparents, but I am so grateful for the ones I had and repeatedly comforted by my memories of them.

. . .

Pete Johnson was the only person I’ve ever heard of who successfully renamed himself as a child.

Kids ask to be called different things, and some nicknames stick for a few years, but I have yet to meet another person who chose a new name for himself as a child and then never went by another one.

When he was a little boy, he got in trouble for acting up in Sunday school. The teacher said, “Little boy, what’s your name?” He said, “My name is Pistol Pete.” She shook her head and said, “No, little boy, what’s your real name?” He answered again, “My name is Pistol Pete.” This happened a third time. “Little boy, what’s your name?” “My name is Pistol Pete,” he said, resolutely. “But… when my mother is mad, she calls me Edwin Rushing Johnson.”

From then on, until he died, everyone called him Pete. I never heard a single person call him Edwin.

This little anecdote could serve as an analogy for his character: Even when he was a small boy, he had a determination and clarity of mind that set him apart from his peers. Pete Johnson was a boy who knew who he wanted to be. And he grew up to be a remarkable man, a man I am proud and honored to have known as my grandfather.

. . .

Pete was a soft-spoken man, exceedingly gentle and patient. For most of our childhood, Da-Dan—as he was so named by us grandkids—was quiet. He would sit in his armchair and read the paper or a book of history, finish a jigsaw puzzle, or tend to the dishes as needed. But he didn’t say much. Then, in late 1999, he got cancer, lymphoma. And as he went through treatment and survived and his ring of hair gradually returned, it was as if the floodgates of speech had opened. He wouldn’t stop talking, telling stories and starting conversations. Once you touched on a topic he loved, he would just keep going, breathlessly, without pause. It was as if he was making up for lost time. This loquacious tendency continued up until his passing, and I think it surprised and delighted all of us.

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Listening to me talk about a book I got for Christmas (1994).

And it was a true pleasure to hear him talk. He was a gregarious and talented conversationalist and a memorable storyteller, just like all of his siblings. I won’t even attempt to replicate his soft and lovely Alabama accent. It was the kind of genteel Southern accent that seems increasingly rare. And he was a rare man.

In all my life, I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He was endlessly fair and good-natured. He never raised his voice or lost his temper. He was never sarcastic. Never rude. Never harsh. Never cynical. Never unkind.

He once told me a story about when he worked as a bag boy at a grocery store in Charlotte. He was the soul of politeness, even as a teenager, and he followed the rules. One day, an African-American woman came through the checkout line, and Pete said, yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am to her while bagging her groceries. His boss overheard him and rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you say ‘ma’am’ to her,” and probably something much worse. But, Da-Dan said, looking down at me, “Even though my boss told me that, I knew he was wrong. And so I kept saying it anyway.”

He had an obedient and compliant nature, but he knew when it was just and right to break the rules.

. . .

Edwin Rushing Johnson was born June 30, 1932, in Samson, Alabama, to Ralph and Delia Johnson. Pete was their third child, preceded by Lib and Buck, and followed by baby Joe. He grew up in Alabama and then, after graduating from Wofford College in South Carolina, returned to Charlotte to become a banker. It was in Charlotte that he met the love of his life, a Miss Lucy Land, at a church social. She had just rejected a date for being too short when she set her eyes on the lanky, dapper Pete Johnson, who was just the right height, according to her rigorous standards. He started sitting next to her in the pew during church and was so nervous that he held the hymnal upside down.

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Wedding day (September 5, 1953).

On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married here at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 42 years, and Pete served as the youth minister here. Later, they were faithful members for another several decades at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.

Pete and Lucy had three children: Mary Elizabeth, now Betsy Almond; Teresa Lynn, now Teresa Farson, who is also my mother; and Edwin Rushing Jr., also known as Rush. From my vantage point, each of them carry on key qualities they inherited from their father: Betsy, or my Aunt B, shares his unwavering devotion to his family. My mom, Teresa, shares his deep sense of justice and clarity over right and wrong, and my Uncle Rush carries on his talent as a storyteller and his personal integrity. Pete and Lucy delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and in the 10 grandchildren that were to follow.

. . .

After their own kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to sleepy little Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. Most of our happiest childhood memories involved the summer afternoons and early evenings spent on the lake with Da-Dan, whether he was at the helm of that old tank of a pontoon boat or standing on the dock with us, patiently teaching us how to fish.

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I think I can speak for all 10 of us grandkids when I say that their home in Norwood held a very special place in all of our hearts. Whether it was gathering around the fire Da-Dan built at Christmas or hunting for Easter eggs in their yard in the spring or jumping off the dock at their big Fourth of July party, many of our happiest memories were at their house.

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In March 2016, after Lucy’s, or Ma-Maw’s, memorial service in Albemarle, all 10 of us looked at each other, and said, “We have to go. We have to go back to the house one more time and say goodbye.” So, Matt, Emily, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, Hunter, Pete, Parker, Mary Elizabeth, and myself—along with spouses Ashli, Guion, and Alex—all jumped in our cars to take a final pilgrimage. And as we headed down that familiar route to 46411 Sapona Lane, my eyes filled with tears: with gratitude, for the many happy years we had spent there, and for the home away from home that our grandparents had created for us.

Someone had given us a key to their house, and we unlocked the front door and silently split up. It was this magical, hushed scene: Each of us wandered through the house, everyone taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved. It was as if we were giving the house its final rites, holding a silent farewell ceremony to a place that each of us would treasure in our hearts forever.

. . .

Da-Dan had a soothing, magical quality with children and animals. They were drawn to him. Perhaps it was his gentle and quiet nature, but he could tame the fussiest baby or the most cantankerous beast.

One of those beasts was this mean-spirited black cat, Punkin. (Note the pronunciation: It’s not “Pumpkin,” but Punkin, the Southern way—named by my cousin Matt, who found the kitten on Halloween.) Punkin was a dreadful killing machine, a primarily feral animal. I once watched him leap several feet in the air to swat a baby bluebird out of the sky in midflight and then bite off its head. He would scratch or snap at anyone who came near him. He’d upset Ma-Maw by dropping the corpses of little baby rabbits on the doorstep for her to find. But when Da-Dan was near? He transformed into the sweetest little lap kitty. No one else could come near him, but with Da-Dan? That spiteful cat would curl up peacefully in his lap and purr for hours and hours. Indeed, Punkin was Da-Dan’s constant companion as he recovered from chemo and radiation.

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As wild children, we were equally drawn to him: He was an incredibly patient grandparent. In all the years we 10 grandkids spent with him, being rowdy and whiny and dripping lakewater all over their oriental rugs or throwing his carefully cultivated gravel into the lake or shooting down the neighbor’s rafts with BB guns, he never once raised his voice at us, never lost his temper. In most of the old snapshots from our childhood, Da-Dan can be seen in a corner, holding a baby in his arms or opening a present for one of the kids with his little pocket knife. As my brother Sam wrote to him on his birthday, June 30, 2006, in a note my parents found saved in Da-Dan’s nightstand at The Pines: “You are a grandpa people dream of.”

Da-Dan was a great-grandfather as well, and as an enduring credit to his memory, both of his great-grandchildren bear his name: my cousin Matt and his wife Ashli’s son, Covin Edwin Pierce Kemo, born June 24, 2016, and my husband Guion’s and my son, Moses Edwin Pratt, born May 9, 2019.

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Meeting Moses (November 30, 2019).

Moses got to meet his great-grandfather just once, this past Thanksgiving. Da-Dan was brought down the hall in a wheelchair, and when he spotted Moses, his eyes lit up. He reached out his hands and held him confidently on his lap as we talked. It was a short moment, but a sweet and meaningful one.

I look forward to telling Moses all about his great-grandfather as he grows up. We pray that Moses will have his gentleness, his deep sense of honor and respect for others, his love of justice, his skill in storytelling, his quiet but abiding faith, his long-lasting devotion to his family, and his legendary patience.

. . .

But as much as Pete loved his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there was never any question about his ultimate love: Lucy.

It was always and forever Lucy. Their delight in and affection for each other lasted their entire lives. They were sweet and devoted and loyal, as was fitting, but they also had a great deal of fun; they were constantly teasing each other and joking together. Watching a marriage unfold like that, a union full of such energy and devotion and humor, makes a lasting impression on a child. Even a small child could look at them, as we all did, and know that this was a relationship built on an unshakable foundation. Pete and Lucy created a full life side by side, raising their three children, looking after their 10 grandchildren, serving at church, opening their home to others, and traveling the world.

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When Ma-Maw died, at the end of February 2016, a good part of his spirit died with her. It was as if he didn’t know how to be anymore. How could he be a person without Lucy? They had been married for 62 years. When I reflect on their marriage, I feel that I am able, for the first time, to begin to understand that mystical phrase from Genesis, of a husband and wife being “one flesh.” Lucy was a part of him, and he was a part of her. They were indivisible. You could not have Pete without Lucy.

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Toward the end, when he was asked what he wanted or needed, he would only repeat two things: I want to go home. And I want to see Lucy.

And now, praise God, he has done both. We can celebrate and give thanks for that, just as we give thanks for the gift of Edwin Rushing Johnson’s good, long, and loving life.

I will appeal to this

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I love fall in our neighborhood.

In my youth, I read the Bible every day. I was particularly fanatical about it in my early teens, pushing myself deeper into study and memorization. I wanted to know more about the Bible than anyone else, as far as it was within my (overinflated sense of) power. I wrote about scripture every morning, memorized the book of Ephesians and much of 1 Corinthians 15, and ultimately had read through the whole Bible three times by the time I turned 18.

I mention this not to brag but to confess. This obsession with the Bible shape-shifted into a dark, unhealthy thing in my young life. My fanaticism broke something in me. The Book was the method through which, I believed, God would grant me favor and a better standing in the heavenly brackets. (Clearly, I was not absorbing some crucial elements of the good news from those books at the end, the ones with the red parts.) And yet this did not happen. All of this intense Bible reading did not improve my character. I was still as horrible as I’d always been, but now, I was self-righteous about it. Worn out from the posturing and performance, by the time I’d graduated college, I was ready to walk away from the faith of my youth for good.

As it happens, I didn’t walk away, which is another story entirely, but I did stop reading the Bible. My reconfiguration of faith made reading the Bible — an act that was once so vital, so critical to my daily functioning — difficult, even distasteful. For the past eight years, I haven’t been able to read the Bible on a regular basis, as much as I’ve tried. I bought new translations, handsomely bound pocket editions, concordances, gigantic ones with commentary. I told myself I’d start memorizing scripture again; I’d read through books during Lent; we’d study the Bible together before dinner. None of it appealed to me (and none of it worked or lasted). It’s not that I wasn’t reading; I was still reading 100 or more books a year. But none of them were the Bible.

I’m still unsure how to fully explain this lapse in Bible reading, but what I do know is that this eight-year break has been restorative. This is a weird thing to say, and my inner evangelical recoils with shame. (To admit such a thing — that not reading the Bible has seemed good for me — verges on serious blasphemy in the circles of my youth.) But it has been. I have been able to enjoy scripture with some distance from it, hearing it every Sunday at church, but I have not buried myself in it; I have not approximated that personal, daily closeness that I once had.

Still, these many years later, I have missed that fervent reader I once knew. Over the past year, I have felt I’m in a healthier, safer place (thanks to the grace of our church, chipping away at my grotesque heart for nearly a decade now), and I have wondered how I could start reading the Bible again. What would it take?

Having a baby, apparently, was what it took. For the past month, in the early hours of the morning, I have read the Bible while nursing Moses. I read it on my phone, needing a free hand to baby-wrangle, which is a new (and not entirely awesome) experience for me. (I’m using the ESV app, which is super-glitchy and full of glaring UX flaws, but it has one of the least gross text interfaces I found.) But it has been working. I have been, to my outrageous surprise, sticking with it.

Leading thoughts thus far? It’s good to be back. And it was right to be away.

I have realized that the Book is still so much with me (and always has been). Even though I clearly didn’t learn much and did not become a better person, all of those years spent reading the Bible shaped my brain and memory. I can still recall scripture easily and with joy. My purity of heart remains Level: Garbage Dump/100% Unrepentant Sinner, but I can remember a weird quantity of the early prophets and the Pauline epistles.

And yet there is still much that surprises me. This is the dual-sided nature of returning to the Bible: I remember so much, and I remember so little.

Specifically, while nursing Moses at 4 in the morning, I was floored by this exchange from Psalm 77, which struck me as just the thing.

I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

I’d forgotten about how delightful that experience is, when reading scripture, when you stumble on just the thing — the small word, the errant phrase that is precisely what you needed. This is the pleasure of such a vast, beautiful Book: It lives alongside you.

I read this and actually said aloud, astonished, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” Moses paused and looked up at me and grinned.

In all of these long years away, I had forgotten many things. The remembering has brought a rush of pleasure and contemplation. Returning, now, has felt like the right thing, considering the days of old, the years long ago.

. . .

It’s super-lame when parents say, “This is such a fun age,” but good grief, this IS such a fun age! Moses is five months old now and narrowly holding onto his title as World’s Best Baby. (Woke up at 3:30 in the morning chirping like a pterodactyl, not sleepy at all! Sleep is silly!)

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Strange little big-eyed alien

Before having a baby, I appreciated hearing from other moms that the deep/eternal/life-altering mother-love doesn’t always happen instantly. Even my mom, the paragon of virtuous motherhood, admitted she didn’t love me at first. “You were this strange little big-eyed alien,” she said. “I loved my nephew a lot more than I loved you, and you were my baby!” My dad also chimed in to add that he didn’t really love any of us until we were at least six or seven months old.

Thus established, it now feels freeing to confess that I don’t think I loved Moses at first. The primary emotion I had, after giving birth, was Thank God that’s over, not Bring the light of my life to my chest so that I can gaze upon his perfect brow! I liked him, sure, and I wanted to meet all of his needs and keep him safe and happy, but I wouldn’t call it love. Especially during that brutal first month, my primary emotional state was a mix of bewilderment and exhaustion.

Today, now that we are three months in, I am pleased to say that the feeling has come. I think about him all day long now. I want his little body to be close to mine as much as possible. Securing his joy seems like the only task that matters in life. He is also so CUTE. Just the cutest. I don’t care if I’m blinded by bias; it’s all I can think when I look at him. I mean, look at this little doofus:

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The boy.

All this to say: I am happy that the feeling has come. I suspect it will last. And then, soon, in a matter of months, when he becomes more cognizant, his father and I will both have to work hard to keep him from becoming a spoiled little princeling, lest all this overbearing love make him totally unbearable.

. . .

Perhaps it is a sign that I am getting old, but I long for moderation. I want to regulate and conserve my life. I want to use what I have. I want to keep the company of temperate people.

. . .

“The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption. … If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie.”

— Alicia Ostriker

. . .

A lovely neighbor, the mother of two beautiful boys, sent me an email after Moses was born, asking me how I was adapting to my new life. She wrote, of her own experience with her firstborn son, “I was all strung out and anxious and generally uncomfortable and homesick for my old life for a lot of those early days.”

I loved her use of the word homesick, because I think it perfectly captures this new state of being. It’s a curious homesickness, because all of the trappings of your old life are still there: Your home hasn’t changed. It is the same, and yet your experience of it is completely altered. It is hard not to miss the old ways. I find myself frequently telling Guion, “I miss you.” I feel like I never see him anymore, even though we arguably see each other more than we ever did before.

It is a long period of adjustment, I suppose. At least the reason for all of this internal upheaval is very cute. That helps.