Expecting

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While we technically found out in March that I was positively pregnant, it wasn’t confirmed at the doctor until April and this specific calendar page felt fortuitous in the most glorious way. Yes, I’m pregnant!

And after finding out (the day before we left for Copenhagen, actually) we had several weeks to imagine our life with a new little one, an approved tiny life, who would join us late in the fall. We were blissed out and nervous and eagerly anticipating our first ultrasound.

The day of that first ultrasound will forever be one of the wildest of my life. We arrived at the doctor’s office early in the morning and got right to business. As my doctor scanned my belly looking for a sign of life his brow furrowed and my heart went into overdrive. Adam squeezed my hand tighter as the doctor looked at the screen, looked at me, back at the screen, and back at me. He held up two fingers.

“What does that mean?!” I stammered. “Twins,” he calmly responded with a sly smile.

Twins. I burst into tears and Adam burst into laughter. TWINS!

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I joked that finding out we are having twins was the biggest shock of my life, but it’s really true. It took me a few weeks to wrap my head around the idea of two instead of one, and to be honest, some days I still can’t believe I’m even pregnant, but now Adam and I can’t imagine anything else and we are over the moon, thrilled beyond belief. Two little ones! Here with us!

I had a really rough first trimester, which is why this blog was so quiet beginning in April: intense nausea that lasted all day, fatigue that would wipe me out, and a general feeling of ickiness. Looking at my computer would actually make me motion sick so I spent a lot of time laying in bed, dozing on and off. I did have a huge deadline right in the middle of all this and couldn’t talk about being pregnant with my editors. I would write 100 words and take a nap and then do it again until all the pieces were finished. It was exhausting! I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to hand in assignments. It was a tough time, but I’m glad to be out of that phase and into the more pleasant second trimester. I’m just over halfway through the pregnancy and starting to enjoy that “glow” I’ve heard so much about : )

I’m so glad we’ve had so many family and friends here this summer to celebrate with us. It’s hard to be away from them during this extra special time, but we are welcoming more visitors (next week, even!) over the coming months and I’m glad for their support and love.

I’ve got a lot of pictures to share of our week in Provence with my family that I’ll put in the coming days, and I’ll really try to be better at updating the blog regularly. There is a lot to discuss, after all : ) Two babies!

Tuesday Book Club: When Breath Becomes Air

I first heard of Paul Kalanithi’s fatal lung cancer diagnosis through the piece he wrote for the New York Times, titled, “How Long Have I Got Left?” As a 36-year-old surgical resident, nearing the end of his residency, he wanted to know what this harrowing diagnosis meant for his career but also for his personal life. Should he continue practicing surgery? Write the book he always wanted to write? Start a family? Yet his doctor would not give him any survival statistics, much less a life sentence.

With a little help from a successful treatment, Kalanithi decided he would pursue the writing project he had always imagined, though I’m guessing his earlier dreams were not so focused on mortality and how he would face his own young death. Still, his book is magnificent. His natural inquisitiveness and desire to learn and challenge accepted wisdom is brave and admirable. His desire to dig deep into his illness and premature death is to be marveled at. I cannot imagine taking such a brave and confident stance in the face of such diagnosis and circumstance.

When Breath Becomes Air is a meditation on mortality and our relationship with death. Like Atul Gawande, Kalanithi suggests, pleas almost, that we shouldn’t allow stigma surrounding death to persist. It will happen to all of us, sooner or later, so why aren’t we talking about it more? And why are we making it so uncomfortable, prolonged, and difficult? There are arguments for better palliative care and hospice and making decisions that will allow for a better quality of life, not just quantity of life. And I must say his arguments are compelling.

Less than two years after Kalanithi received his diagnosis he died. I knew this going into the book, and still! the book felt suspenseful. His voice was so strong and clear, I kept thinking to myself (and saying to Adam), I can’t believe he’s dead. I cannot believe his wisdom was lost to us so quickly.

Lucy wrote the epilogue to his book (which was finished posthumously) and she describes his final days and hours in great detail. I sat reading with tears streaming down my cheeks, devastated by her loss. They decided to have a child while he was feeling better , and imagining him leaving behind an eight-month-old daughter broke my heart, as did imaging Lucy now parenting solo. Her bravery, like his, is astounding and beautiful. Her emotions at losing her young husband are raw and real. A doctor herself, she understood so many of her husband’s desires to live a full life, not just a long one. I think they both can teach us so much about quality of life.

You can read Lucy’s essay here, which was published the same day as Paul’s book. And this interview with her was also so insightful. Lastly, her twin sister Joanna, the blogger behind A Cup of Jo, teamed up with interior designer Jenny Komenda to makeover Lucy’s apartment after Paul’s death. She wanted the space to feel alive and fresh, and to become a place that would help her and her young daughter begin anew while still honoring memories of Paul. The makeover is so moving.

I loved this book. Along with Being Mortal, it should be required reading for anyone who is facing a serious illness or death, or has a loved one in a similar position. I would highly recommend it.

(image of Paul Kalanithi via The New York Times // image of book via A Cup of Jo)

Take Time for Friday

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I’m sitting here looking at the cactus next to my desk, one that is sorely deprived of the real sunshine and warmth it needs, and wishing it would would hurry up and look like the ones in this picture already! Poor guy, I bought him in January and he hasn’t even had a chance to prove himself yet. Some things really do take time, especially in these chilly dormant months.

Why aren’t we born with endless patience? Why is it something we must cultivate with an open, selfless heart? And why does it seem in such short supply when we demand it most?

This past fall I was not using a very gentle, patient tone with myself and it was really starting to wear me down. I don’t have a lot of experience with overly negative brain chatter and it threw me a bit. Christmas was a good reset for me, and seeing my family and friends helped put me in a better state of mind. But I feel like I’m always trying to work on my patience, especially with myself lately. And I’m guessing the cactus next to my desk could stand a break, too.

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This past week was lovely: Adam was home sick for three days (okay, this was not so lovely), and I decided to take a few mental health days with him and check out. Movies in bed in the midday; hearty potato soup for dinner that will do no favors for my waistline but will help soothe a nasty chest cold; nonstop pajamas. You know the sick-day drill. I felt like a kid again! Thankfully, Adam is feeling a bit better and I’m mostly happy to be back in a routine.

What are you up to this weekend? We are making homemade chicken fingers tonight, which I’m really looking forward to. Adam has been craving them lately and he’s taking the lead on this one. I’ll report back (apparently, one tip is to sprinkle a little buttermilk in the dredging flower to get those crispy bits). I’m going to book club tomorrow night to discuss this incredible book, and we are visiting friends in Geneva on Sunday. Fun weekend!

I hope you have a nice weekend, as well, and until we meet again on Monday, here are a few bits from the Internet that I’ve been thinking about the past couple weeks:

A chill song for your weekend

I bought some great produce while living in Charleston (sweet corn forever!), but fruits and vegetables are better in Europe.

Speaking of eating, here are 8 dining trends that will be sweeping the US this year. I wish I could benefit from all the pierogis!

Oprah cleaned out her famous walk-in closet (can we even call it that? it’s the size of my apartment) in Harpo Studios, and gave most of it away. Lots of eye candy in there.

Will you watch the new season of Girls? It sounds as if we may be nearing the end of the series, but according to some the show is still as flawless as it was in its first season.

More scientific proof that meditation changes the brain and body.

As someone who received silver status on United toward the end of last year, and will promptly lose it at the end of this year, I laughed out loud at this article about the madness of trying to earn airline status. The lengths some people will go : )

These everyday meatballs look so right.

I finally found some new slippers after looking for months (I had previously been using hotel slippers…) Fyi Bern locals, I found these at Kitchener.

I’m assuming many of you saw John Oliver skewer Donald Trump (née Drumpf) on Last Week Tonight, but here it is in case you didn’t. It’s very important viewing. Tell everyone you know.

(top image via decorista daydreams)

 

Sunday Rituals

Yesterday was one of those classic Sundays wherein I did all of my favorite things and yet I never really did anything. We slept in and made coffee and scrambled eggs; I read magazines while Adam read up on homemade pasta techniques (more on that later this week); I did some light fitness, took a long bath and used a hair mask and face mask–big time pampering; we watched church and made pizza; I had a glass of really good wine and Adam had an IPA; we watched a movie while trading foot rubs. It rained all afternoon and we never left the apartment. It was awesome.

It got me thinking about Sunday rituals and how balancing a day like yesterday can be: no expectations, no to-do list, no priorities. Just indulging in what you and your family like to do–want to do–and not feeling guilty about it. Pajamas encouraged, naps recommended.

My Sunday rituals obviously revolve around indulgences, but they can be more practical and still feel really good: a long run alone; grocery shopping for the week; organizing your schedule or materials for the week ahead; cleaning.

If we can cleverly combine rituals and resolutions here, I’d like to suggest that I add another item to my no-agenda agenda for Sundays: baking. And this yogurt cake, a riff on the traditional French dessert that almost all children master during the toddler stage, seems like a nice place to start. (My chocolate chip-less cookies, a natural second place.) It’s an easy recipe that includes the seasonal addition of clementines and I imagine it would make the apartment smell lovely, adding to the homey, cozy atmosphere I try to create each Sunday.

So I’ll start with this yogurt cake and let you know if baking becomes a new ritual. I can tell you a certain someone around these parts will really enjoy the trial and error process… Until then, I’m curious: what are your favorite Sunday rituals? What do you look forward to on the weekend? And what helps you reset for the coming week?

Tuesday Book Club: 10% Happier

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I’ve read eight books since the start of the new year and yet this book, 10% Happier seems to be the one I’m thinking about most (well, besides A Little Life, which I finished yesterday; I can’t quite talk about that one yet). You may recognize the author Dan Harris from Good Morning America or Nightline or a variety of short pieces featured on various ABC news programs. He’s a journalist with a fevered, almost maniacal work ethic, who, after years of war correspondence, recreational drug use, and chasing stories around the world, hit rock bottom when he had a panic attack on GMA one morning.

From there he visited a series of therapists and counselors to help him ween himself off drugs and find ways of coping with the stress from his highly competitive job in news broadcasting. This stress, which manifested in physical symptoms as well as emotional ones, was overtaking his life.

Simultaneously, he was covering the religious beat for Nightline news and interviewing religious radicals across the US and world. Having grown up in a secular home, he was shocked to find himself suddenly intrigued by the idea of meditation, which had previously seemed too spiritual and fluffy to actually be of use.

With the help of teachers, silent meditation retreats, endless literature, and gurus, Harris began his own meditation practice. His credits his daily sessions with making him 10% happier than he once was, and far more calm and collected at work; no more on-air panic attacks.

Harris was once one of meditation’s biggest skeptics so there is a lot of hemming and hawing in the book. He is reluctant to acknowledge its benefits, but they quickly become a cornerstone of his professional success. The key, he says, is to quiet the inner brain chatter than can quickly derail one’s best intentions. In fact, the subtitle reads: “How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works–a true story.” It’s a bold claim, but the book is incredibly persuasive.

One passage, with its beautiful simplicity, stuck with me:

“Instead of mindlessly criticizing [someone]…[one can] calmly and tactfully disagree. Seeing a problem clearly does not prevent you from taking action…Acceptance is not passivity. Sometimes we are justifiably displeased. What mindfulness does is create some space in your head so you can, as the Buddhists say, ‘respond’ rather than simply ‘react.’ In the Buddhist view, you can’t control what comes up in your head; it all arises out of a mysterious void. We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.(emphasis my own)

Respond, don’t react. How could our interactions with others be transformed if we adhered to this simple mantra?

Meditation does not have to be a spiritual practice, though much of its fundamentals come from Buddhism. But I don’t think one needs to convert to Buddhism in order to understand and utilize many of the religion’s beliefs. Or am I naïvely believing I can sample religions like a buffet? Either way, I’m intrigued.

So intrigued, in fact, that I’m thinking of taking up my own meditation practice. At the end of yoga or other light exercise, I usually spend a few minutes in a supine pose relaxing with my breath. This is something I started years ago and it’s very calming and restorative. So, I’m already halfway there. I want to take it further, however, and I’m looking forward to the challenge, as well as the positive results.

Mindfulness has been coopted by a variety of organizations and self-help fields: mindful eating; mindful budgeting; mindful parenting; mindful leadership. I’m hoping to apply the concept more broadly, however, and naturally incorporate into different parts of my life. How can I be more mindful of my own thoughts, and how does that translate into my interactions with my world and others around me?

What are your thoughts? Have you tried meditating before? How do you slow the endless brain chatter? The kind that gets you down or gets you needlessly worked up?

P.S. Here’s a really nice short relaxation exercise that you can do at home. I love this line: “Feel sounds passing through your awareness without untangling you.” How often have you felt that a sound—traffic, screaming, construction—has untangled you? Such a good way to put it.

(image via Buzzfeed)

The Art of Being Alone

IMG_4573Last week I was reminded of this Boston Globe article about the power of loneliness and solitude. While the article itself is several years old, and the research in turn even older, it still rings timely and true. In fact, it might be even more pertinent given how much more connected to society we are through our increasingly advanced technology and smart devices than we were in 2011.

These cold and dark days seem to inspire a lot of alone time, don’t they? On Tuesday I spent my entire day alone. I never once left the apartment. I ran into a neighbor in the laundry room and chatted briefly, but that was it–and I was in my pajamas. The snow and frigid temperatures made going into town, even for milk or other simple groceries, feel unnecessary. It’s so much easier to find ourselves alone during January and February and even into March, especially considering how many people work from home. Studies and research show that alone time, extended and, most importantly, wanted stretches of solitude can be very healthy:

“Solitude has long been linked with creativity, spirituality, and intellectual might. The leaders of the world’s great religions — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses — all had crucial revelations during periods of solitude. The poet James Russell Lowell identified solitude as “needful to the imagination;” in the 1988 book “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr invoked Beethoven, Kafka, and Newton as examples of solitary genius.”

Influential thinkers and deities aside, solitude can be just as good for laymen. The article references a study about “social loafing” (the idea that people don’t work as hard on a task if they know others around them can pick up the slack) and the differences of recall when an activity was performed either in a group or solo. The results of the study indicate that we remember a task or incident better when we’ve experienced it alone. The graduate student who led the study, Bethany Burum, compares her findings to going to the movies alone:

“Burum leans toward a different explanation, which is that sharing an experience with someone is inherently distracting, because it compels us to expend energy on imagining what the other person is going through and how they’re reacting to it…Sitting there in the theater with nobody next to you, you’re not wondering what anyone else thinks of it; you’re not anticipating the discussion that you’ll be having about it on the way home. All your mental energy can be directed at what’s happening on the screen.”

As someone who craves alone time I found this delightfully refreshing and validating. I’ve been to the movies by myself and it’s wonderful. I’ve traveled alone and it can be great too: you can see what you want to see, stop when you want, eat where you like, etc. You’re in control!

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But the article also reminds us that we’re never truly alone. The writer explains:

“the experience of being alone is being transformed dramatically, as more and more people spend their days and nights permanently connected to the outside world through cellphones and computers. In an age when no one is ever more than a text message or an e-mail away from other people, the distinction between “alone” and “together” has become hopelessly blurry, even as the potential benefits of true solitude are starting to become clearer.”

These days this is an obvious point, but I found it jarring nonetheless. This so-called “social snacking”, the texting, emailing, quick FaceTiming, can cause a lot of confusion about what solitude is. Solitude isn’t being alone with the option of constantly reaching out to someone, it’s a concentrated effort at becoming in tune with your inner brain chatter. It’s not looking to see if someone in your contacts list has something better to say than your own mind. It’s getting comfortable with social silence.

Easier said than done! As always, right? So how do we cultivate a sacred solitude? And when do we do it? In the morning, when we haven’t been tainted by the demands of the day? Or in the evening when we know our to-do list has been tackled to the best of our ability? In the middle of the day when you just need a break from it all? It seems a rather personal decision, one that can actually be quite mutable if you really listen to your needs.

I’m curious: how do you like to spend your alone time? Reading? Running? Knitting? Cooking? Or, do you not like alone time? It can be tricky to distinguish being alone and feeling lonely. What are your thoughts?

 

Tuesday Book Club: Maybe in Another Life

maybe-in-another-life-9781476776880_hrIf someone told me today that I had to sit down and write a book, I think I would want to write one with a plot like Maybe in Another Life. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Hannah is in her late twenties and still looking for a place to settle down and call home (sound familiar?). She moves back to Los Angeles after a rough patch in New York that involved a relationship with an emotionally unavailable, married man. Her best friend hosts a welcome party for her with several close friends, including her ex-boyfriend from college. They reconnect and latent chemistry sparks throughout the night. Toward the end of the evening, when it’s time to leave the party, Hannah has to make a choice: does she want to go home with her friend and start life in LA with a clean slate, or does she want to go home with her ex Ethan and see if this past relationship might have a second chance.

Hannah decides to go home with her friend Gabby and start fresh.

Hannah decides to stay with Ethan and give their love another chance.

She gets to do both! The chapters alternate between each likely scenario and the reader sees how Hannah’s life develops through each course. As a writer, it would feel very liberating–not feeling so tied down to a specific plot line and allowing yourself to imagine and experience both alternatives.

And as a reader it felt like an adult version of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that I really liked growing up. The results of each choice vary greatly and I liked imagining each wildly different version of Hannah. I thought that some of the characters were a bit flat and the writing saccharine at times, but overall it was a good speedy read.

What I really liked, however, was the debunking of the “everything happens for a reason” myth. I used to believe in that idea, but to be honest, a sermon I heard at church several years ago completely changed my attitude on that concept. Babies don’t die for a reason; women don’t get raped for a reason; people don’t starve for a reason. These events are not lessons that God or another higher power wants to teach us, and I think it’s okay not to look for a lesson or a reason in them. They are bad things that happen, because with all the free will in the world, bad things are bound to happen.

Further, believing that everything happens for a reason takes away a lot of agency and power from us. It’s as if we resign ourselves to just letting things happen around us or to us and not taking action, for good or for bad. How can we take pride or responsibility in our actions if they were already destined by someone else? It sounds like a passive existence, and I don’t think that’s what we are meant to experience here.

In each version of Hannah’s life, she says that fate led her to where she is and that this particular life was destined to occur. Of course, reading parallel versions of her life that are so different from one another, we can see that’s not true. It’s easy to see how that idea can be comforting in the face of misfortune, hopelessness, or uncertainty. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a world where sense and reason guide tragedy and unbearable sadness. But, personally, I think believing that things don’t happen for a reason takes some pressure off of decision making and releases us from the vise of vast unknown. In hindsight, it’s easy to reorganize your thoughts and actions into a cohesive narrative, but we know they don’t work like that.

For example: if I hadn’t moved to Switzerland six years ago I wouldn’t have met Adam and we wouldn’t be married and wouldn’t be living here. I might not have gone to graduate school and I might be teaching somewhere in Kansas City. And that makes me sad in a way because I really liked graduate school and Charleston and I love Adam and our life here. But, in this other version of my life, the one where I stay in Kansas City, I would probably be really happy. Maybe I would be teaching third grade at a great school. Maybe I would have met someone awesome who has a great sense of humor and loves me to no end. I would have been celebrating other victories and successes than the ones I am now.

Yes, things lined up the way they did and I’m grateful. But they would have lined up a different way had a gone to a different college, made a different inspiring friend along the way, said no to moving to Switzerland a second time. And everything would have been fine. I take a lot of comfort in that thought.

Maybe in Another Life is rich with discussion and insight, even within yourself as you can clearly see here. Book club of one! It wrestles with the concepts of fate, destiny, agency, and free will, which can be seen as pillars of our entire existence. Why are we here? What are we meant to do and learn? It’s all a bit heavy for Tuesday morning, but certainly worth examining.

What do you think? I hope I haven’t completely put you down if you find comfort in thinking everything happens for a reason. That wasn’t my intention. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(image via Simon & Schuster)