A St. Valentine’s Day Epiphany

fullsizerenderOccasionally, I have these parenting epiphanies. Like on Valentine’s Day a few years ago when our then middle grade sons quietly removed the little containers of candy I’d stashed in their lunch. Or later, when I offered a suggestion to a high school teacher about how to best handle our older son when he’s stressed. “Mrs. Johnson,” the teacher said, “if your son requires special treatment from me, it’s probably best he ask me himself.”

Ahhhh…

Yes.

They are growing up.

No more kiddie candy or sandwiches cut into heart shapes in their lunch. And no more trying to stand between them and discomfort. Big boys must learn to navigate the world without mom trying to smooth every path.

But many moms like me don’t see it coming. We think we have more time because sometimes parenting young children feels endless. It’s not. You’re sopping up spilled juice and begging a kid not to wipe boogers on the wall and then… you’re sitting in a chair sipping coffee while your teens make their own lunch. They drive themselves to school. They navigate their own world without you–pretty well I might add. It seems the hubs and I have done a lot of things right.

But this week I had another epiphany. It’s clear that I did something not quite right when they were younger and another thing particularly well.

Here’s the deal. Our younger son, a freshman, is struggling in an honors English class. His older brother took the same class with the same teacher, and although he had similar complaints about the class, he was able to pull off a decent grade. So I question the younger, “what gives?”

His response is telling. In his example he tells about how the class read The Odyssey as part of a unit on Greek mythology. “Some kids who do well on the tests,” he said, “are those who’ve read all of the Percy Jackson books as a kid.”

If you’re unfamiliar, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan follows the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s a demigod son of Poseidon. The books are beloved by young readers who also happen to absorb a lot of foundational information about Greek mythology.

Our older son read every Percy Jackson book.

Our younger son read Batman comics.

They are both good readers who do well in school. Parents are told it doesn’t matter what kids read as long as they read. I believed that. And it’s probably true up to a point. But like adults who don’t read newspapers or many books, some people lack a depth and/or expanse of knowledge that serves as a building block for understanding other information. I now believe it does matter what children (or all people) read. And for a hot second, I thought I’d failed our younger son.

But then, I attended an art exhibition about Martin Luther and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. While there, I overheard a young boy around 8 years old ask his mother about a painting. The boy discovered this oil on canvas illustrating the decapitated head of John the Baptist and said, “Mom! Is that real? Did that really happen?”

“No,” she answered. “It’s only a painting.”

That’s the moment I was assured I’d done one thing right. You see, when our comic book loving boy was around that same age, we bought him an illustrated bible called The Action Bible. The artwork is similar to comic books but the stories are firmly biblical–and not the shortened, most loved, PG rated versions of bible stories–but the entire bible in graphic novel form. He’s read the whole thing at least twice.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Quality is as important as quantity when it comes to reading material for kids.
  • We’ve got limited time to teach the foundations of our values before our kids launch.
  • One of our kids will have to work harder to make sense of some literature.
  • But both of our kids know the bible and its precepts–that love exists, that God is love, that we are called to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That the one thing that really matters… is a faith that expresses itself through love.

Today is Valentine’s Day. The older son checked his lunch and removed the candy I’d stashed inside. But the younger one didn’t peek. So I get one more small opportunity to show love in a “goofy and embarrassing” mom way. I’ll take what I can get and thank God for helping me to not screw this whole parenting thing up completely.

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Giving Myself Permission to Fail

Every once in a while someone says what I’m thinking but am afraid to admit. I push some thoughts to the back of my mind because they’re not “trending” or because saying something out loud might make me look “less than” and therefore shouldn’t be spoken.

I was awakened to my suppression of a thought while I was scrolling through Twitter today and noticed a Tweet that said, “The Case for Reading Fewer Books.”

I was intrigued and clicked the link. It was an essay by Annie Neugebauer about how the advent of terrific social media tools may be impacting how we read. Now these tools, like goodreads.com, are great for sharing and reading book reviews and participating in the broader book reading community via online discussion and comments. But! As the essay writer notes, these types of tools can also make it all too easy to indulge our competitive natures and our desire to make ourselves more appealing to an internet audience.

Just as Instagram has made photography into a competitive sport via participants’ seemingly endless search for more “likes”, who knew that reading could become competitive too?

It’s a competition I willingly signed on to but didn’t acknowledge how my desire to achieve a higher number of books read and thus demonstrate how well read I am might be interfering with my joy of reading.

It all began by discovering someone else’s number of books read in a year. It was a lot. To see how I compared, (already a problem is brewing) I tried to figure out how many books I’d read in the same year. My number was much lower. Embarrassingly low. I’d only read seven books that year. I loved each book very much but how could I call myself well-read with such a low number?? Don’t get me wrong. I’m a constant reader. Of magazines, online essays and newspapers. (Another obvious need to prove myself to you. Ugh…) But I wanted to be able to say I’d read a lot of books! I wanted a bigger number.

So, I set a goal to read at least two books a month the following year. I kept a list on my phone. I was rapt with pleasure, like a drug-addict taking a hit (or an Instagram photog gaining a “like”) each time I added another title to my list. By the end of the year, I proudly boasted that I’d surpassed my goal and read 30 books.

And then, probably because I bragged about how many books I’d read, people began to ask for book recommendations. I’d review my list. And guess what I discovered? I only truly loved… seven of the 30 books I’d read.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of terrific books out there. But books that really blow my skirt up don’t necessarily all come to me in the same year. And in my push to accumulate a higher number of books read, I didn’t take the time to be choosey. I just kept plowing forward – sometimes forcing myself to finish a book I didn’t like because I wanted to “count” it.

And long books made me anxious, not because I don’t like long books, but because reading a long book meant fewer books read and a lower number to report.

Turns out, I prefer long books. Thoughtful and thought-provoking books. (not that shorter books can’t be thoughtful and thought –provoking, i.e. Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber. But you catch my drift.)

Anyway, I’m not sure I can be cured of my addiction to achievement. And setting a reading goal is a good way to stay committed to regular reading. (So could being in a book club but I’m not the best book club member cause I tend to bitch about books that other people love.) But, I am going to try to give myself permission to “fail” when I don’t reach my book reading goal, especially if “failure” means I get to savor the books I really want to read no matter how long it takes me.

Special thanks got Neugebauer for helping me to see the error of my ways…

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Pulling Myself Up by the Roots

DSCN1908Christmas vacation is over and I’m ready to get back to work. The time off was great. Restful. Fun. Togetherness. And even when the decorating, shopping, cooking and gift-wrapping at times felt overwhelming, I think I still prefer vacationing at Christmastime the most. Of course the religious and spiritual significance of the season make December special. But I also appreciate that most everyone else is also on vacation between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. It’s like a universal Sabbath.

Unlike being on vacation at other times of the year, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on things going on in the world. I don’t dread a return to an overflowing email inbox, mile-long to-do lists and looming deadlines. Everybody seems to move more slowly at the end of December. This collective downshift into a lower gear helps me to truly relax and immerse into family life, entertaining and just plain lazing. And it was glorious.

But now it’s back to reality because one can only laze just so much before roots form on your ass and begin to penetrate the couch cushions, making it increasingly difficult to ever get up and get moving again at a pace required by the promise of a brand New Year. Oh, how I require a certain amount of goals, routines and demands on my time or I will most surely become a permanent part of the furniture.

Speaking of goals and the New Year, I can only stand (sit mostly) in awe of goal setting over-achievers like my blogger friend, Nina Badzin, who has set a goal to read 50 books in 2015. She’s done it before and to my mind, reading 50 books is an incredibly impressive feat, so much so, that it’s probably too much of a stretch goal for me.

I could say my first full year as editor of Edina Magazine consumed much of my brainpower, making reading books seem like a lost luxury. But something else has also prevented me from reading many books in 2014. Watching TV with my kids. They are finally at an age when I actually enjoy the television programming they choose. And in a teen’s life of seemingly endless sports practices, homework and video gaming, TV can still serve to bring an otherwise disparate family together. I wouldn’t trade these fleeting moments together for isolated book reading.

Also, my attention span has collapsed a bit from consuming continuous scraps of news stories or essays found on Twitter and Flipboard. I need to work my way back up to a regular diet of books. So my 2015 reading goal is 12 books. One per month. I know it’s no more than what’s required of an introductory book club member. But I read only seven books in 2014 making 12 seem reasonable and attainable. Plus, now it’s public. So I’m accountable.

DSCN1914Books I read in 2014:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

The Lobotomist by Jack El-Hai (Also a PBS American Experience documentary)

Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos

Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Reading makes for better writing. Hopefully that will be evidenced on this blog. I now have a full year of blogging under my belt. And in 2015 I’m planning more frequent posts and opportunities to begin conversations with you dear reader. Thank you, by the way, for being a part of my writerly journey. A writer without readers is… well, still a writer, albeit maybe a slightly more lonely one.

I’m also prepared to commit to daily devotions with my family. Our household religious rituals include weekly church attendance and prayers before meals. But regular scripture reading is often left to the individual. I hope to make bible study more familial by reading and discussing scripture together most nights during the evening meal. Our teens may at first groan at this resolution. But I plan to hold fast to this commitment–confident it will be a blessing to us all.

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Credit Sarah Dibbern

Lastly, over the past month or so, I’ve made it a point to call my mother every day. I plan to continue these daily calls throughout the New Year. She is a plane ride away. This makes it impossible to check in on her or take her to lunch as often as I’d like. Not having enough demands on her time means she’s acquired some of those dreaded couch cushion roots. And when your parent’s couch roots become so strong that they’ve managed to wrap tentacle-like around all things nostalgic, comfortable and familiar, a once vibrant life can struggle to flourish. What can I do? It is difficult to know how to be a good daughter. But for now, I resolve to offer words. Words of care, companionship, conversation, inspiration, instigation, joy and hope. It is my desire that a daily phone call containing a few Words by Angela might be considered uplifting in some way–just like what I hope to offer you dear reader each time you visit me here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a joyful, restful and blessed Christmas season. Please feel free to share a few of your goals for the New Year in the comments section. Happy New Year!

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“Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives.” -
Viktor Frankl

 

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Aiming for Worthy Goals in the Comparison Game

Do you ever play the comparison game? The one where you measure your worth based on how you stack up compared to the people around you? If this were a sport, I’d most likely have a trophy case filled with dust-coated awards. We must know that much of our comparison game playing is useless as it only makes us feel badly about ourselves. What’s worse is making our comparison game about things unworthy of our attention.

I remember when the hubs and I first moved to the tundra and bought a house. We were eager to make a few cosmetic improvements, including new flooring. But before making a final decision about flooring, the owner of the flooring store suggested we visit a home of one of his satisfied customers. We did and their flooring looked great. But that wasn’t all that looked great. The entire home looked pretty great, i.e. better than mine–newer, bigger, and with amenities we could not afford. Worst of all, those very nice homeowners had the audacity to look several years younger than the hubs and me!

I pouted in the car on the way home. The hubs asked what was wrong and I lamented over how that young couple had a nicer home than us and how it seemed unacceptable since we were obviously at similar life stages. Had we fallen behind? Had we chosen wrong careers? Was life simply unfair?

“Shame on you,” he said. (seriously, that’s exactly what he said.)

When I raised my eyebrows at his remark, he continued… “No matter how nice a home we buy, there will always be someone with a nicer one.” In other words, there is no end to the path of dissatisfaction.

I settled myself, chastened. The hubs is a good man.

The comparison game can still be a struggle for me, albeit less so when it comes to counting other people’s money. We are fortunate in that our economic circumstance is mostly the result of conscious lifestyle choices and we don’t lack for any necessities and many luxuries. Plus, I no longer desire a bigger house to decorate, heat or clean. I’m not even much interested in cleaning or updating the home we’ve now lived in for over 15 years. These days, I’m not much into “stuff” as a measurement of my worth.

But I do believe there are some suitable measurements against which to gage our performance. For example, I follow the work of other editors and writers and when I discover something praise-worthy, like a beautiful web design or a well-written essay, I want to up my game. I want to do my job well, and hopefully, I will continue to get better by comparing myself to those who do it better.

Some of my friends are great cooks. Others exercise more than me, which isn’t hard to do, but is still admirable. Some folks seek lifelong learning opportunities, travel more, read more and volunteer more. I don’t feel it’s wrong to compare myself to these people–not to shame myself or feel badly about my chosen lifestyle–but to be inspired toward living a more useful life.

Like during a recent dinner date with three of the loveliest friends I could ever ask for; I asked each woman what she was currently reading. I love books and believe a person’s choice of reading material to be insightful. (This is also a good conversation starter.)

One of the women talked about how she is trying to read the bible more. Not books about the bible. Not bible studies. Just plain old digging into God’s Word. Not alone at night before bed or during the early morning hours, but daily at times she would most likely be seen by her children. She spoke of wanting to leave, at the end of her life, a worn and dog-eared bible and memories for her children of regularly having seen their mother immersed in a biblical search for understanding, guidance and encouragement. What a legacy–better than any financial success, career accomplishment or dedication to any particular beauty or fitness routine.

I willingly and humbly compare myself to this woman. And I do not measure up. But I pray that one day I will.171587210

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You Can Take a Girl Out of Flint…

Like you, I’m a reader. I read novels and non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and blogs. I’ve got Kindle, Flipboard and iBooks on my phone so that a variety of reading material is literally at my fingertips at all times. And, like you, certain books tend to resonate with me. I’m enthralled by non-fiction and history, books that tend to turn me into the Cliff Clavin of conversations, excited to spurt acquired information like an annoying leaky hose.

When it comes to literature, last month, I wrote a post about a handful of Midwest inspired novels enshrined on my bookshelf. Tales of endurance, family and the allure the great plains has had on dreamers, immigrants and adventurers over hundreds of years.

Today, my reading suggestions zero in on a very distinctive Midwest region, the birthplace of General Motors, home of autoworker union strikes and of a once burgeoning middle class left devastated by changing economics, poor education and broken homes. This region also happens to be the place of my youth, thus the resonance, wincing and personal heartbreak I’ve felt while reading each one.

I encourage you to read these books and attempt to understand what’s happened in places like Flint and Detroit. Because if you think this wreckage can’t happen elsewhere, you need only pay attention to the state of manufacturing, housing, education, governance and family life in other pockets around the country to recognize how close communities, businesses, families and people can come to the brink of calamity.

 

RivetheadRivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

An oldie but a goodie for anyone curious about automotive factory life in Flint Michigan during the 70s and 80s. I give credence to Hamper’s descriptions as they closely match the stories I heard from other “shoprats” while growing up in Flint. His essays hint of the disastrous and greedy collusion between the UAW and GM executives that paved the way for thousands of manufacturing workers to lose their jobs and an entire town to become abandoned; albeit nobody believed that could happen back then. There are no clean hands in this tale and your mind will be blown by factory floor exploits described in raw detail by this foul-mouthed wordsmith. An interesting read that allows the reader to decide which ingredient in this historical stew is most responsible for a city’s unsavoriness.

 

Please Don't Come Back From the MoonPlease Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos

This novel is set in Detroit during the early 1990’s and describes a community filled with kids forced to grow up without their fathers. The turmoil created by parental abandonment seems to have become accepted as a “normal” adolescent rite of passage in contemporary life. But Bakopoulos effectively narrates the real pain of loss and how children and teens attempt to be “resilient” and navigate life mostly unsupervised and without direction.

As an all too typical fatherless child who grew up in a decaying community of way too many fatherless children, this story touched my heart. Combine this read with a viewing of Kevin Durant’s Mother’s Day speech and you’ll want to pin medals on all the single moms who’ve managed to avoid or overcome depression, frustration, drug addiction, loneliness and poverty to raise children after their husbands took, in Bakopoulos’s words, “a trip to the moon.”

 

TeardownTeardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young

A recent and important book that paints with broad strokes a historical portrait of a city that was once a powerful launch pad into the middle class for thousands of hard-working families. A Flint native, Young manages to highlight the underlying culture of a city unprepared to adapt to change and contrast it with his current hometown of San Francisco–two cities that may as well be on different planets.

When I try to explain what Flint is, this place that partly shaped my young life, many react with skepticism. Could any place in America really suffer in this way? Teardown tells us the answer is yes. It also asks, “What can be done about it?”

 

MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For the more adventurous literary readers, this epic tale takes you on a journey from Greece to Detroit with an astonishing story of family, adolescence and eventual acceptance of self. Less a book about place as the others I’ve mentioned, the setting still provides some pretty interesting insight into the evolution of Detroit–a locale that cannot be described in one word or even one sentence. It is as fraught as the cast of characters in Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

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And You Thought Your Life Was Hard…

“Spring” has sprung on the tundra. So far, it’s better than last year, with snow mostly melted and a 70 degree day in the bag. Today it’s 40 so we’re not out of the weather woods yet. But after enduring a brutally bitter, hunched to the north wind, teeth chattering, Cuddle Dud layering winter, I scoff at 40 degrees, a toughened Midwesterner proud of my winter survival both physically and mentally.

But I barely qualify as Midwestern tough and only by 2014 standards with hot showers, a gas fireplace, a closet full of fleece and an attached garage. I’m a city girl who shops and doesn’t farm. I’ve never known life without access to indoor plumbing, take-out or television. Had I been forced to live on the plains 100 years ago–hell, even 50 years ago–I never would have made it. I marvel at the rugged endurance, courage and resilience of bygone Midwesterners and am thus drawn to reading Midwestern literature.

So as the weather slooooowly warms, here are a few summer reading suggestions for anyone who thinks they’ve got it hard in flyover country. These books are beloved to me, cherished for great storytelling, compelling characters and depictions of Midwest culture, endurance and community at its finest.

 

SandraDallasThe Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas

Loaned to me by a friend one summer, it’s been a while since I’ve read this one. But I often recommend it–the story of an Iowa girl who hastily marries and travels west with her new husband to carve out a life on the plains. I had no idea people actually lived in sod houses, or how one would build a sod house. Simple supplies like sugar, coffee and company are coveted luxuries, let alone healthcare or police in case of emergencies. Daily heroism is layered with Mattie’s loneliness and her suspicion that perhaps her new husband doesn’t love her.

I never got around to reading more of Sandra Dallas’s work. But I wouldn’t rule it out since I enjoyed this book so much.

 

LeifEngerPeace Like a River by Leif Enger

A more contemporary story of life in the upper Midwest, this is an unhurried tale of a faith-filled man and the distance he travels to save his teenaged son accused of murder. Around the edges and deep in the heart of this adventure is an honest inquiry into the possibility of miracles. Beautifully written from the perspective of the second son, Reuben, this story is unjaded by modern-day cynicism. Instead it exemplifies the strength of family bonds, unconditional love, and that Midwestern confidence that justice can and will be done.

 

DavidRhodesDriftless by David Rhodes

Probably one of my favorite books of all time, this collection of vignettes is strung together to create a Wisconsin community so familiar, you’ll swear you know or have known someone similar to every character in the book. Small town life is illuminated through dashes of eccentricity, suspicions of strangers, peculiar prejudices, devotion to routine, and an unwavering commitment to lending a helping hand. There are also scenes involving a car chase, a panther and a casino, which add just the right dash of flavor to this simmering stew of literary genius. Oh, and I sobbed at one point in the story while reading and relaxing in a lakeside Adirondack chair. So be prepared to giggle, sniffle and be immersed in the close-to-home reality of this wonderful novel.

 

O.E.RolvaagGiants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag

The best for last. This story will be with me always. Even its opening lines are forever emblazoned in my brain. “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon… bright clear sky, today, tomorrow and for all time to come.”

When you read those words, you know you’re about to embark on something big–the tale of Norwegian immigrants traveling west to South Dakota–fisherman turned farmers and all that that entails when pioneers don’t speak the language and are confronted with trials ranging from devastating weather events to fields ravaged by insects. And loneliness becomes fertile soil for the evils of depression, which can take root and threaten the sanity of the heartiest among them. I became so engrossed in this book, I found myself whispering prayers for its fictional characters. It’s truly an epic, a journey worth taking, but only from the comfort of my 21st century life.

If you have reading list picks to add to this list, please mention them in the comments. We all need more to read while we wait for warmer weather on the plains.

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