In My Opinion

lady-liberty

I absolutely cannot stand politics because I think that they divide more than unite. Once you’ve put a label of Democrat or Republican on something, an entire demographic will automatically turn the other way simply because of the label. As a loving friend with an open mind and the opposite political persuasion once said, “We’re good people with different approaches of how we want to care for others.” I love her for that.

I have stayed silent on the political front this year—pretty much like every election year. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s confrontation. Doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention, though. It’s been alternately entertaining and dismaying to read what’s going on in social media—friendships thrown away over an election.

Here’s the thing, folks: we are fortunate to live in a country in which we can change our minds every four years. Feel like your voice wasn’t heard this year? Guess what? There were people four years ago who felt the same thing. What about third party supporters who always feel left out? What about people who feel like our electoral system is so broken that they refuse to vote?

Hillary supporters: she’s not your personal savior. She wasn’t going to come knocking on your door with all the solutions for your life. And for those who are thrilled with the impending Trump presidency—he won’t do that either! I, like many, was absolutely disgusted that the choice came down to these two. And it doesn’t matter if you liked Gary Johnson or Jill Stein because there was no chance either of them would win. I know this is me in my fantasy world speaking, but wouldn’t it be nice, instead of choosing the candidate you hate the least, to be torn over whom to pick because both candidates are so honorable, so likeable, so qualified?

We had poor choices—but if I think about it, the person I like is never the one who is nominated. The type of person who is nominated for this office is generally someone who is so far removed from the typical American’s life that it’s hard for us to connect. The type of person I want in office is someone who comes from humble beginnings, who knows what it’s like to struggle before finding success, who doesn’t like the limelight, who wants a quiet life with his or her family—although that kind of life is impossible for any president.

But you know who does live like that? We do. Moms who get up early to fix lunches for their kids before school. Teachers who stay up late grading papers and spend hundreds or thousands of their own dollars to care for their students as if they are their own children. Parents who work the graveyard shift in order to provide a better education, a better future, for their children. Doctors who hold precious lives in their hands and carry a heavy burden that never leaves them, even when they’re at home or on vacation. I could go on and on and on.

We are the people in charge of our futures, for the most part. We cannot expect a great political leader to swoop down and “make everything better.” (Remember how the Hebrews expected Jesus to be the great political leader that would lay all the Gentiles low? Didn’t work then, either. Hmm…) With that kind of expectation, nothing will ever happen. Let’s not sit by and be passengers in our own lives for another four years, hoping that the next one will get it right… surely the next one…

Now’s the time for a great platitude, right? Like “change begins with you” or “you make your change.” Please. I’m a writer, and I hate clichés. How about this? Live your life. Be as kind to others as you possibly can be. I know it’s hard. But it’s also not impossible.

Last night, I was at my son’s baseball game. There are black kids and white kids on his team. I don’t know how a single one of them voted, and they don’t know how I voted, either. It doesn’t matter. We cheered for the kids and encouraged them when they struck out because that’s what we do. We laughed about how wimpy we Floridians are when temperatures dip below seventy. I’m sure many of us carried our own baggage from the election, but we were quiet about it. We’re continuing to live because that’s what’s required of us if we want to be decent parents.

If we go through life feeling misunderstood—most of us are, so why cry about it?—we are missing the chance to do something positive. Did you know that it’s possible to have friends of different viewpoints? It’s even possible to have disagreements within your own particular belief system. But it is also possible to appreciate the beauty in the differences. Although it may be hard to swallow, you can learn a lot and even grow when you reach out and have a conversation or simply listen to someone who comes from a differing perspective. Imagine that! How many of us get along with our spouses or parents or friends one hundred percent of the time, anyway? But do we get a divorce or disown our siblings when we dare to say what we believe?

Sadly, yeah, some of us do. We need a healthy dose of Grow Up. We need to appreciate that our differences are what make us unique, instead of trying to convert everyone to our particular way of thinking. As soon as we try to be like anyone else, we’re losing what makes each one of us an individual.

And since it is Veterans’ Day, thank you to the people in the Armed Forces, from hundreds of years ago all the way to the present, who work together, even if they disagree with one another politically, to give us this country and this life, where we are free to disagree and have stinky opinions and still live—if we can—in peace.

A Bookworm Without Any Books?

Borrowed Books 2016

A few of the books I’ve read

For the first time since I’ve started publishing a list of fiction titles that I hope to read in a year, I’ve actually managed to read them all—and in under 10 months! I didn’t assign any less books this year than previously, and some were even of the long or slower-paced variety. I’ve even gone astray and read extra books that weren’t on my list. If you’re interested, check out my activity on Goodreads, or read the 2016 list by clicking here.

Although I feel oh-so accomplished, there is a problem: What’s a girl to read when she can choose any book in the world? I just so happened to buy several not-on-the-list books this year that I have yet to read, and they’ll tide me over for a while. But even so, I’m three months ahead of schedule, so what will I read in 2017?

The problem is always in the choosing. There are many books I would like to read or even re-read, but guidance is always welcome. So if you’ve read something that really moved you or that you think fits my profile (again, see Goodreads), please recommend away. The bookworm grows restless!

Fundraiser Books

More books to read and re-read

Face Time

FaceTime logo

There’s a good reason why Apple chose “FaceTime” as the name of their video-calling product. Unlike a regular old phone call, it allows people with the FaceTime app to chat face-to-face. It’s something my husband and I used recently when our kids were out of town. I’m so grateful for the benefits of modern technology, but I also have to be careful not to let those same benefits turn detrimental.

I fought getting a Smartphone for a long time. My husband had a Blackberry for a while, and no offense to Blackberry, but it was a piece of garbage. I know now that it was just an inferior model, but its rudimentary GPS that only worked when you didn’t need it and super-slow Internet search capabilities left me underwhelmed. Not to mention that I would rather stay in the stone age than learn how to use new technology. Update the operating system on my computer, and I get all ticked off that the icons look different. You’d think I’m more like an octogenarian than a millennial.

I did finally break down and get an iPhone. A longtime Apple user, I knew that it would be user-friendly and easy to learn, and I wasn’t disappointed. But I had heard about people becoming glued to their Smartphones, compulsively checking email in the middle of the night, over-stimulating their brains by browsing Facebook instead of reading a book before bed. I was afraid I would turn into a Smartphone zombie, and the games and apps available soon had me trapped. I was playing Words with Friends at stoplights and browsing shallow entertainment articles when I could have been doing just about anything else. To lure a bookworm away from her books is quite a feat.

There were other issues at play—I can’t place all the blame on my iPhone. When I purchased it, I had a months-old infant and was mired in the depths of postpartum depression. It was easier to engage in mindless pursuits and live on autopilot than try to do… anything. Fortunately, the depression was temporary, and once I was myself again, I realized what was going on: I had allowed myself to be seduced by technology.

I deleted all the games I’d downloaded, and I moved the ones that I couldn’t delete off my home screen. I started to read again. I came out of my funk and remembered that I liked to write and edit and decided to try my hand at making some money on the side.

Thus began my transition from pro bono editor to freelance writer. I once again let technology take over. While I wasn’t necessarily playing games, I was writing articles when I should have been a mom. My wake up call came in the form of my elder son telling me that I wasn’t always very fun. I knew I had to make some changes, and you can read about them in my Work-At-Home Covenant post.

But working at home is just a part of it. Parents who work 40-plus hours a week outside of the home are just as susceptible to the likes of Candy Crush and Pokémon Go (or so I’ve heard—I engage in neither). I’ve set a few rules for myself. I don’t use my phone at all after I’ve gone to bed, unless responding to an emergency text in the middle of the night. I used to check emails if I awoke in the night, only to wake myself up so completely that I couldn’t get back to sleep. Also, after recently reading an article (written by a non-millennial) about how young people are unable to start their day without technology, I decided to buck that trend by starting my days with at least five minutes of contemplation. Sometimes this means that I fall back asleep (oh, well), but I usually spend it thinking about the people in my life who are going through tough times. If I tell you I’m keeping you in my thoughts and prayers, that’s not an idle promise—I’m doing it every morning.

So I’ve insulated myself when I need to sleep and when I wake—what about the rest of the day? Such as when I’m being a wife and mom?

It just so happens that when I was watching the news this morning, the resident “expert” seemed to be talking directly to me. The story was all about how harmful it is for parents to be on their phones when they’re around their children. It could be texting, spending time on social media, reading the news, or checking emails—it doesn’t matter what the parents are doing so much as what the children are seeing. They’re seeing that their parents are engaged with technology rather than the family.

The news story made me rethink my own use of technology, how I will sometimes read a stupid article with a catchy headline, which is followed by something like, “Readers who liked this also liked 50 Hairstyles You Don’t Care About and That Will Steal 10 More Minutes from Your Life!” I didn’t buy an iPhone to read vapid tripe like this. I use the camera feature when my kids are doing something cute; I use the alarm to keep to my schedule; I access dictionary apps when I need to look up a word—but the email and social media and all the rest is like so much icing, pleasant in moderation but sickening if I overindulge.

Many parents, conscious of the overstimulation of so much technology, limit the amount of time their kids watch TV, play video games, and spend on their phones doing who knows what. I do the same. So this morning, when my elder son asked if he could watch TV and I said, “No,” he pulled out the iPad. “That’s the same thing—you’re still watching a show,” I told him.

You’re using technology,” he said.

I was. I had my laptop open, ready to write this post. Touché, little man.

I closed the laptop and pulled out my novel. I helped my four-year-old cut some shapes that his brother had traced for him. And long after I’d planned to let my son turn the TV on again, he was still sitting on the couch, looking at one of my old scrapbooks.

It’s not all about technology, but rather about being present. Technology just happens to be the biggest culprit. So the next time you pull out your Smartphone or tablet or sit in front of the computer, take stock of why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it useful? Can you do it later? When was the last time you played a board game with your kids or sat at the table as a family, all phones switched off? Do you remember when you last had actual face time?

Creation Station Summer

So the school year is over at the Cotchaleovitch residence, and it is time to sleep until 9:00 every morning, let the kids binge watch TV while I kick back with a book, and only change out of pajamas and emerge into the real world when we’re down to our last Capri Sun. Once we’ve recovered a little, we’ll consider a vacation.

Well, not quite. But by the last day of school, I was feeling pretty elated that we’d all made it. There were a lot of firsts in the 2015-16 school year: it was my first year teaching full-time; it was Ian’s first year in school; and it was Peter’s first year with an in-school reading resource for dyslexic kids, which meant I didn’t have to run him to a tutor twice a week.

We were on the home stretch. Other teachers commiserated with me when I noted that my students needed a second spring break. Like a permanent one. For the last month of school, we were all just holding on. That’s not to say that there weren’t good days, but there comes a point when a child can only take so much, and then every new bit of info you try to cram in their brains just comes spilling out of their ears. I’m sure parents felt much the same way (read one mom’s hilarious recap of her kids’ end of school year experience here).

Then, when it seemed that all the end-of-year events were falling into place, my eight-year-old got sick. I mean three-trips-to-the-doctor-in-six-days, two-different-antibiotics, absent-for-six-days sick. My husband, my parents, and I took turns watching him, and I stressed out over what he could possibly have (at the third appointment, the conclusion was bronchitis, but the fever that wouldn’t quit is still a mystery). Believe me, I was ready for some uninterrupted home time.

But there’s a part of me that knows what will happen in the fall if I just totally deflate and turn into a zombie for the next two-and-a-half months: everything my kids have learned in the past year will be relegated to their mental back burners, and the readjustment period come mid-August will be painful for both them and their teachers.

I had a rough idea of what my kids needed to accomplish this summer. Peter has a summer reading book, and so he doesn’t forget all his math skills, we need to play some math games that his teacher showed me. As for Ian, he’ll need to work on his fine motor skills. From working with four- and five-year-olds, I know that strengthening his fingers can be as simple as letting him put beads on strings, practice cutting with safety scissors, color, and play with Play-Doh.

So now, to implement all of these things into the days we spend at home. It was actually during Peter’s sickness that it all came together for me. One day, when his was fever was down and he had the energy get creative, he made this cute monster-Mickey-Mouse-ears thing:

Monster Frame.jpg

Ian loved it so much that Peter made another one for him. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the boys had so much fun inventing crafts from their own imaginations; after all, it’s what we encourage kids to do at school when we set up a table full of various supplies. It’s called “creation station.” At his age, it’s not the kind of thing Peter does much anymore, so it’s particularly enjoyable for him to do at home.

Creation Station.jpg

This is something that I can let my kids do with supplies already on hand and minimal brain power on my part. So many moms see crafts on Pinterest and then get stressed out because they think (I don’t know why) that their children expect perfection – or for them to spend hundreds of dollars on obscure supplies at craft stores. I promise you, they don’t. The kids I taught all year were usually happy with paper and crayons. While it may not be as easy as letting the TV babysit them, it keeps their little minds engaged without them even knowing it.

And the creation station portion of each day has an added benefit for me; it gives me a dedicated time to do a little prep for my class next year… and to do a little creating of my own. 🙂

Creation Station II.jpg

 

 

Wake Up Call

Last week, I bought a pile of used books at a school fundraiser and planned to blog/brag about them. After all, I love books, as do many of my followers.

But our weekend was busy, and blogging wasn’t on my mind at all. We were ending our night at Disney World on Sunday (Valentine’s Day) when I got a text from my dad that floored me. A young woman from my church – 20 years old, a senior in college – had died in a head-on collision that morning.

I was filled with the immediate guilt that I tend to feel when I’m happy and well, yet someone else has is facing a life-altering tragedy. This girl and her family’s grief have stuck with me all week. It seems that about half the people I work with are somehow connected to her, so I was constantly reminded of the terrible loss. I did not know her, but I know both of her parents and can only imagine the dread with which they face every day now without their younger daughter.

And, of course, this dredged up all the other tragedies that have touched me: my own grandmother, killed in a car accident when I was a child; my husband’s uncle, killed in a motorcycle accident that same year; a cousin who fell from the rooftop dog park of his apartment.

This tragedy has affected me more profoundly than those I see on the news every day, probably because I know the family. Not to mention that the victim was 20, had her whole life before her, and was innocent. Yet I think many of us have become desensitized to the number of innocents who die all the time; it’s a defense mechanism that allows us to continue to live, not bogged down under the weight of sadness and despair. Otherwise, we might spend all of our time worrying; after all, tragedies don’t care how old you are, how much you’re loved, or if your life holds infinite promise. An accident could take any of us at any time.

It’s when something like this happens that I always resolve to do better about enjoying each moment because it could be my last, to tell my loved ones how much they mean to me because I don’t know when the last time will be. But it goes even beyond that: life is too short to go through it like a zombie, taking the little things for granted.

While I can’t stop the frustrating, busy, bad days from happening, I can choose to pay better attention to the good things that fill in the gaps. Instead of dwelling on the traffic, which I can’t change, I can enjoy listening to my playlist. Instead of dreading the nights and weekends when my husband has to work, I’ll enjoy the time with my kids, remembering than one day they’ll be out of the house. I need to glean as much of the good as I can from every day, instead of allowing stress and worries to turn everything into a chore.

Earlier this week, I found myself somehow running 10 minutes late, only to discover that I hadn’t prepped my son’s lunch the night before – something that would cost me another 10 minutes. That’s something I would usually stress out over, which spirals to snapping at my children to hurry. But it wasn’t their fault that I was running late, and although it seemed farfetched, if our drive into school that morning happened to be our last, I didn’t want to spend it tense and angry. I made the choice to relax about it, and guess what? We somehow got out of the house early.

I know I’ve written before about balance being key and living for the current day, not some potential, future day that may or may not even happen – and I keep doing so because it’s a work in progress. Stated baldly, I know that one day, I will become a statistic. When and what kind of statistic I don’t know. But until then, I need to live like each day is special – even the weekdays when I have to get up at 4:15. Instead of looking forward to a different day, I need to recognize that, even though it may not be memorable beyond the present moment, it’s that moment I’m living that matters.

Fundraiser Books

Pile of Books

Circling back to those books – I will enjoy them, God willing, as well as all the little things and the big vacations and milestones, too. But if I were to die today, books unfinished, milestones unachieved, I don’t want anyone to mourn my unfinished to-do list. Rather, I want to leave people with no doubt that I enjoyed the small moments of my life; I want to leave my family and friends with memories of good times, fulfilling relationships, and no regrets.

 

This Week in the News…

It has been quite the newsworthy week, both for the good and bad, locally and internationally.

At the start of the week, it was the tragedy of David Bowie’s death, and later, it was Alan Rickman’s. I’ll say that while Bowie’s was a shock, Alan Rickman’s came as a blow. And it’s not even like I knew him. Tragically, another acclaimed actor, who seemed to be a good person in real life, met an untimely end. But I’ve always had this thing about Alan Rickman, ever since he played the despicable Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Maybe it’s because, as young a girl, I didn’t know to distinguish the actor from the character, so for years, I associated Alan Rickman with evil. It was only much later that I discovered that he was much more than the characters he portrayed. I admired him for so often choosing roles that were dark, challenging, even hated. Someone has to be very comfortable in his own skin to be able to sustain a career as such.

But getting back to the news…

Aside from additional tragic local news, there was also the national hoopla surrounding the billion-and-a-half-dollar Powerball. I’d never paid any attention to any sort of lottery before, but this one had the attention of even the most stringent non-gamblers (even if it was only to scoff). It’s hard not to wonder what it would be like to wake up one day as a billionaire. Some co-workers and I joked that we would happily “settle” for the lucky million-dollar ticket. Even after taking out taxes, that kind of money would make an incredible amount of difference in my life. And even big celebrities like Queen Latifa and David Duchovny said they were participating.

But what about people like David Bowie and Alan Rickman, who had a lot more than I’ll ever, even if not billions? Would that kind of money have made a difference to them? I’m thinking not. I’m thinking that they could already afford the best health care money could buy, yet they still both succumbed to the dreaded C-word.

While many people speculated about what they could do with that kind of money – from retiring at the tender age of 19 to buying houses in all the posh resorts around the world – I thought that I love my job and would hate to have to quit because of the sudden notoriety that being a big winner brings. If, somehow, I ever managed to get any kind of windfall that would allow me to do whatever I pleased (financially) for the rest of my life, I would want to hide it, so I could still do exactly what I’m doing right now.

I’m a pretty low maintenance girl. I don’t need fancy houses or luxury cars – although, I would like a cool reading nook or even library in my dream house. I wouldn’t spend the money on jewels or designer clothes because I’d rather wear yoga pants and a sweatshirt than anything else. It’d be nice to be able to live completely debt-free and know that my kids will always be taken care of. But money won’t cure my elder son’s dyslexia or my younger son’s whatever-he-has.

About the only changes I would make would be to buy a house closer to where I work, hire a cleaning lady once a week, and make my husband retire and become my personal chef. (He’s a good cook – no need to hire outside help.)

As for the rest – buying a new car with cash when the old one craps out or taking vacations on a whim just because we can or filling my library with all the books I could ever want – while that would be nice, there’s something to be said for earning it. Recently, we paid off a  car and finally bought a new one that has all the features we ever could have wanted but couldn’t afford until recently. And there’s something so fulfilling about knowing that we’re finally to that point – that we’ve made it ourselves.

And, hey, there’s still that very slim chance that I’ll make a comfortable living as a novelist. The odds are better than of winning the Powerball, at least.

And say that does happen – say that, someday, the world mourns my death like they’re mourning Alan Rickman’s – I’ll still want to live the quiet life. I’ll still want to sit on my couch or reading nook and be left alone to read a good book. Or read one of my favorites with my children or future grandchildren. I’ll still be enthusiastic about hosting book clubs. Because that’s who I am, and no amount of money (or lack of it) will change that.

And just because, I would like to end with a beautiful, very human quote of Alan Rickman’s. I think that anyone can appreciate it, but only true Potter fans will really get it. Alan Rickman certainly did.

Alan Rickman quote

What to Read in 2016?

It’s that time again – a new year and a new list of books to read. But first, a look back at 2015:

I created a list of 27 books to read in 2015 (read that list here), and I’m proud to say that I read 24 of them (and I’m halfway through the 25th). Four of those titles include Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle – finally! That series was well worth my investment of time.

I also started reading the Harry Potter series to my elder son last summer. I only planned to read The Philosopher’s Stone, unsure of what Peter would think of the British versions of the books (which I prefer over the American versions). The problem is that he’d never read anything without illustrations, and the British books don’t even have the little sketches at the beginning of every chapter, like the American ones. To my surprise, Peter fell in love with the series after he got over his initial indignation that he had to create all the pictures in his head. In fact, we just finished The Order of the Phoenix. (Also, for Christmas, my cousin bought Peter a copy of the gorgeous, fully illustrated Sorcerer’s Stone. “Now I know what Peeves looks like!” he told me while flipping through it.)

I made few detours from my anticipated list of books in 2015, but when I did, I was glad to do so. When someone hands me a book and says, “You have to read this,” or when my job requires me to pick a book for summer reading, or when my child gets enthusiastic about a new series, I’m happy to deviate. Still, I bought several new books during the year, understanding that I likely wouldn’t read them until 2016 – but they’ll show up on this year’s list.

One new venture I’m undertaking this spring is a book club for 4th through 6th graders at my school. We’re going to read The Lightning Thief, the first book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and if it’s popular enough to continue, we’ll tackle The Sea of Monsters. Either way, I’ll likely go ahead and read the rest of the books on my own. I’ve also bought a beautiful, illustrated companion book called Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods.

Borrowed Books 2016

Pile of Borrowed Books

Aside from re-reading these series and adding the few new books I’d bought earlier in the year, I was beginning to wonder what else I would read in 2016. I was considering putting a plea on Facebook until one afternoon a few weeks ago when I visited a different cousin. It turns out that his wife, a high school media specialist, is on a committee that’s reading all kinds of new young adult fiction. She has piles of books all over their condo that she’s received for being on this committee. And before I left, she hand-picked a number of books that she thought I would enjoy borrowing. She also gave me a recommendation for a book that she couldn’t relinquish (signed by the author) and which I received from Amazon this week.

Christmas Books 2015

Christmas Books!

In addition, Christmas is always a magical time for books at my house – I give, receive, and then buy them afterward. This year, I gave the first Sword of Summer book (Rick Riordan’s latest series on Norse gods) to my husband, and he gave me the second book of the Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) Cormoran Strike series. (Not pictured: the third book of that series, which I just ordered, and The 5th Wave, which I bought after taking the photo.) Lastly, two people gave me blank books this year – I love blank books! It’s taking me longer to fill them these days, but I will fill them.

Without further ado, following are the novels (plus one fun non-fiction title) that I read in 2015 (in chronological order):

  • The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus Book Four) by Rick Riordan
  • The Blood of Olympus (The Heroes of Olympus Book Five) by Rick Riordan
  • Paper Towns by John Green
  • Eragon (Inheritance Cycle Book I) by Christopher Paolini
  • Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
  • Eldest (Inheritance Cycle Book II) by Christopher Paolini
  • Brisingr (Inheritance Cycle Book III) by Christopher Paolini
  • Inheritance (Inheritance Cycle Book IV) by Christopher Paolini
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  • Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
  • Insurgent by Veronica Roth
  • Allegiant by Veronica Roth
  • Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth
  • Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
  • Messenger by Lois Lowry
  • Son by Lois Lowry
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  • Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
  • Let It Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

And now for the 2016 list – coincidentally, 27 books again (including the two that I’m currently reading):

  • Feed by M.T. Anderson
  • Red Rising by Pierce Brown
  • And Another Thing… Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Part Six of Three by Eoin Colfer
  • Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
  • Raven Queen by Pauline Francis
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • Girls Like Us by Gail Giles
  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  • All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  • The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book I) by Rick Riordan
  • The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book II) by Rick Riordan
  • The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book III) by Rick Riordan
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book IV) by Rick Riordan
  • The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book V) by Rick Riordan
  • Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods by Rick Riordan
  • Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard (The Sword of Summer Book One) by Rick Riordan
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  • Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
  • Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Having Myself a Martha Little Christmas

Let It Snow quote

I’ve been putting off writing this particular post for a couple weeks. I even decided, just a few minutes before I read the above quote, that I wouldn’t write it. After all, it was going to be a post about how busy I’ve been, and writing a new post would just add to that busyness.

But then I did happen to read that line from Jubilee, and it sort of seemed to be speaking to me.

If you know me well, you know that I’m organized to the nth degree. I’m disciplined, an overachiever – okay, maybe I’m slightly OCD, which can be a problem – but the point is that I’m always busy doing something. The week of Christmas is no exception.

Somehow, it crept up on me this year. It was a couple weeks ago that I realized that the last week of school was approaching, and if I was going to do my usual make-some-goodies-for-my-coworkers thing, I’d have to get my act together, like now. And I didn’t even know what kinds of goodies I was going to make.

Christmas Tree Fruit

Christmas Tree Fruit

Years ago, I used to bake like a crazy person in the lead-up to Christmas. It got so stressful – putting the pressure on myself to make cookies for any- and everyone I might possibly see – that my husband asked me to please slow down. Even then, it took a couple years for me to actually follow through. I still make goodies (this year dark chocolate truffles, English toffee, muffins, cookies, and even Christmas tree fruit platters – cute, right?), but not nearly to the degree that I used to.

I could, of course, go to one of the many excellent chocolatiers in town and just buy treats that I know my friends will love, but that gets expensive, and here’s the thing: even though I don’t particularly love baking, I love giving what I bake.

I am the classic Martha – you know, from the story of the sisters Mary and Martha in the Bible? In case you’re not familiar, Martha is so busy serving Jesus that she doesn’t have time to listen to Him. Meanwhile, her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, and when Martha asks for Mary’s help, she gets rebuked by Jesus.

Okay, now I’m not trying to insert myself into a Bible story, but women often get categorized as Marys or Marthas, and I’m a Martha if ever there was one – except.

Except that I like being busy. There are very few times that I become Mary – sit and enjoy. My husband half-jokes, half-jabs at me that I can’t watch TV without reading a book at the same time. Multi-tasking is, of course, necessary if you’re going to work full-time, get the laundry done, fix lunches, and do all the other mom stuff.

But that doesn’t mean that I resent Mary. Right now, the Marys in my life are my two kids (who are boys, by the way, so this isn’t a perfect analogy). They’re busy, too – my elder son does karate, takes piano lessons, plays baseball, and has his school responsibilities. But right now, he has a two-week break from school, and he pretty much gets to be a kid.

While my four-year-old napped this afternoon, my eight-year-old bounced on our new trampoline. Meanwhile, I was cleaning the kitchen, preparing for guests on Christmas morning. He asked me to jump with him, and while I had plenty of good excuses not to, I decided to be Mary for a little while.

A few hours later, both kids spread out paper and markers on the floor and started making Christmas books. (Said Christmas books had pictures of Christmas trees, rattlesnakes, and worms – hey, they’re boys.) I was touched, not just because I’m a writer, but because they worked so well together, and they were totally into their project. And they wanted me to help, too. Again, I had any number of other things that I could have done, but these books, while not Caldecott candidates, are very important to them. So I let them trace my hand, and I added a choo-choo train to the snake-and-worm collage.

Because I spent time with my kids, I was left with plenty of things to do: dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and presents to wrap. I even had this post to write. But to be a Martha – a true Martha – I believe there comes a point when you have to understand why you’re so busy. Yes, I have to wash clothes so we’ll have clean things to wear. But why keep the house clean, why make goodies for my friends, why post this blog if it doesn’t in some way fulfill both me and the person or people for whom I’m doing each particular thing? And the answer is that if I’m being busy just to be busy, I’m doing it for the wrong reason.

Now that I’ve come to terms with this truth about myself, I hope I can live up to the good side of my inner Martha. And no matter which sister describes you, my readers, I hope that you all will tap the positive aspects of your personalities and fully enjoy this holiday season.

A Lesson in Humanity

Humanity Quote 2

My church employs a chef whose family came to the States from Bosnia in the mid-1990s. When they arrived here, our chef’s husband needed a prosthetic leg, which cost $24,000. Knowing that they could not afford the prosthesis, several families within the church pooled their money to purchase the leg. “That’s not something you forget,” our chef told me earlier this week.

I’d run into her in the church kitchen, where I smelled something wonderful. There wasn’t a church event planned at that time of the week, and I wondered what she was cooking. She told me she was preparing a meal for a widow from our congregation, one of those families who helped purchase the $24,000 leg. This widow has lots of dietary restrictions, yet our chef is glad to prepare tasty meals that follow the dietary code. And she always refuses payment.

“That’s so sweet,” I said.

“It’s not being sweet,” she told me. “‘Hi, how are you?’ That’s sweet. This is just being human.”

I didn’t know what to say. My friend, the Bosnian chef, does not mince words, and she’d put me in my place.

I’ve thought about what she said quite a bit over the past week, being human versus being sweet. And she’s right; there is a difference. I had to think about all the times I’ve thought of someone as sweet, and I haven’t been giving them enough credit. My son is sweet when he gives me a hug, but he’s human when he shows his great capacity for compassion, when he immediately thinks to pray for someone in need.

Many people call this being Christian, and if you call yourself Christian, you certainly should pray for others, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and visit those in prison, just to name a few. But I think it also short-changes those people who don’t share my beliefs, yet are compelled to act in ways that are selfless, in ways that humble themselves while serving others.

Perhaps these people are simply being human. Perhaps it’s the way we’re all born, but then the pressures of life get in the way and cloud this original purpose.

Humanity Quote 1I often see the ugly side of people, the kind that gets reported in the news: mindless mobs, riots, senseless violence. But even though they are humans committing these acts, I don’t think its our humanity that is to blame. Think of how we are born: innocent. It’s not until we grow older, when we can choose how we act, that the problems arise.

Our brains set humans apart from the rest of the animals. But not only that. While some animals are able to feel compassion – think of service dogs or perhaps the gorillas that have learned sign language – it is our humanity that leads us to reach out to other people in need and help them. Our humanity is our goodness, not the ugliness. It leads us to give when we expect nothing in return, to show our gratitude in the best ways that we are able.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that this simple message came to me at the start of my favorite season – but also the season when so many people become cynical. Consumerism is about to rear its ugly head in many ways in the next couple months. People will have their feelings hurt when they don’t receive what they expect they deserve for Christmas, or they’ll spend all their energy trying to give the perfect gift, plan the perfect event. But all of us – all of us, no matter what we believe or celebrate – have the capacity to be human with one another. In today’s society, it may even take a little rebellion to get back to our humanity, but I’m willing to try. And I think it’s something we should practice all the time.

No Back to School Blues This Year

Two years ago, I posted a blog about the stress that surrounds the end of summer break and going back to school – and I wasn’t even the one going to school. Still, as a parent of a then-five-year-old, I was fully responsible for getting him there on time every day and felt that pressure. I don’t even remember if I had the same feeling last year – I was probably too busy to notice.

This summer, I’ve done more summery things than probably any other summer of my life, including a two-week vacation with my family. It would seem that a summer like this would stir that familiar anticipation, that early-morning-wake-up dread. But for once, I look forward to the days ahead, when I will have a set routine (even if it means a 4:15 alarm). Funny how things change.

Although I am a little anxious about what the fall will bring, with my little guy transitioning from loosely structured days with me or other family members, I’m thrilled that he’ll finally be in the classroom his brother first entered four years ago. I’ve spent much of the summer preparing my three-year-old by teaching him the songs he’ll sing in pre-school, as well as the concept that it’s not cool to walk out of the bathroom sans pants. It’s a work in progress, but he’s actually getting it. For the past month, he’s told me almost on a daily basis that he wants to go to school – and it’s not just Peter’s school anymore but Ian’s, too. And Peter, who will be entering the second grade, is excited to meet his teacher and see what friends will be in his class.

But the kids aren’t the only ones who are excited. A couple months ago, I received the call from one of their school’s administrators, asking if I would be interested in a PreK 4 assistant position. I jumped on it, probably sounding rather giddy. It was one of those pinch-myself kinds of moments. Summer break had just begun, though, so it didn’t sink in fully for a while. Every once in a while, when thinking about the upcoming year, I would have to remind myself that this year will be different. I will have an assigned parking spot. Instead of walking the kids up, they will come with me to my classroom. No more phone calls while I’m in the shower, asking if I can sub. All welcome changes.

Toward the end of July, I did have a little bit of an overwhelmed feeling, knowing that I had a couple weeks of training and pre-planning ahead of me. Before most of my teacher friends were even back, I was at school, learning how to administer and interpret the assessment we use for pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. Then this past week, while many of my friends posted pictures of their end-of-summer vacations on social media, I’ve been hard at work. I have my badge, which makes me official, and people keep welcoming me to the faculty, but I can’t help but feel like I’m still the same old volunteer-slash-substitute mom that I’ve been since 2011. I belong here, I have to remind myself. Not only do my colleagues help cement that feeling, but my delight in my position tells me it’s true. As I confided in another teacher, I’m having more fun than I feel like I should be allowed to have – and someone’s paying me for it!

Regular readers, fear not – I’m still writing. I’m not about to give up on that dream. But now I’m able to help support my family in a way that freelancing didn’t allow, and my kids and I will be at the same place every day (although in different classrooms). I’ve die-cut, laminated, copied, stapled, cut, sorted, and painted my way through a number of projects this week, and while it sometimes felt like the room would never be finished, I’m proud of the results. I’m working with an amazing teacher, and since I subbed a lot in PreK 3 last year, I know eight of our ten kids already.

PreK 4 collage

I’m sure there are days ahead when I will be tired and irritable. There will be kids who grate on my frayed nerves. There will be days and weeks that never seem to end. I’m not deluded about what’s to come. Even so, I am very excited. So much so that I don’t have back to school blues at all. Instead, I feel like I do when a much-anticipated vacation is just around the corner. In fact, I feel much like I did over twenty years ago, when I was a girl attending this very school.

The night before the first day back will likely be a sleepless one. I’m just the kind of person who gets too excited to succumb to unconsciousness. So if you see me Tuesday, I’ll likely be carrying matching grey baggage under my eyes. But don’t worry, this is exactly the kind of thing I don’t mind losing sleep over.