This Year

This year was the year a lot of things went wrong. But it was also the year Christmas started to work.

When you spend the holidays with a big group of family or friends, little kids aren’t such a big deal. You celebrate the way you always do, you trade off with the kids, and it’s the same as every other year. But when you spend the holidays with just your little family and your family has only one adult, the formula changes. 

At our house we have thrown out most of the holiday trappings. I don’t spend hours working on a big meal, partly because it’s hard to do while also keeping an eye on kids, and mostly because the kids wouldn’t eat any of it anyway. And the traditions I’ve wanted to put in place haven’t always worked, little kids are fickle and everyone has to be treated the same and that just isn’t always going to fly.

But this year! This year we kind of got it. 

I didn’t put in a lot of extra effort this year. Actually the week before Christmas was really awful, a pile-up of bad thing after bad thing. So I came into the weekend with a bare minimum of plans. What I remembered, though, was my previous attempts at starting holiday traditions that crashed and burned because the kids were not interested. So this year we had traditions, but like much of our lives, they were simple and low key.

We bought a real tree this year. We’ve never had one before, and it was definitely a sacrifice this year in particular since the move has money tighter than usual, but it looks great. The kids helped me pick out ornaments and a star for under $30 and a few leftover ornaments from previous years plus gifted ornaments from friends meant we had a real tree decorating this year. 

One tradition I’ve been committed to doing with the kids is one my parents started. If you don’t give allowances and budgets are tight, kids can still give gifts with little money and risk with one simple trip: the dollar store. This one mostly worked, but neither Graham nor Tessa likes being alone. At all. And since secrecy is part of the deal, logistics were a little tricky. But each of them got two dollars to buy a gift for each other and for me. Dollar store gifts mean expectations are low, but the impact was really there this year. They both kept talking about the gifts they’d chosen, I had to tell them about a hundred times, “It’s a secret!” They were just really excited. Graham had me open my present from him before he opened any gifts himself. And while Tessa got me a card with a kitten on it “for a favorite niece,” I’m calling it a win.

Christmas Eve pajamas are always a win. You can take that to the bank.

After we opened pj’s, I decided to do a Christmas Eve dinner that was different and fun, but still the kind of stuff my kids actually like. So I got a bunch of red and green veggies (bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber, celery), cut them up, and served them with a big bowl of ranch (and hummus for me) to eat while we watched Muppet Christmas Carol. The kids were thrilled to eat on the couch and enjoyed the dipping. I was just happy they ate and that it took only a little while to prep.

I stayed up after the kids went to bed to wrap presents and watch White Christmas, a little tradition of mine ever since the divorce. In the past it’s been bittersweet, but this year I was just used to it, it was the thing I always do, so it felt better. I thought about cooking our Christmas breakfast (strawberry muffins, settled upon after a few other efforts that flopped) then but ultimately decided the kids would eat the candy from their stockings in the morning anyway and no one would be wanting breakfast until at least 10. Which was 100% accurate.

I let Christmas Day just be. The kids enjoyed their new things, we went to a movie, we had a normal dinner. What makes my kids happy is routine, safety, comfort, so we had enough of normal with special thrown in to keep everybody happy. 

Christmas was Sunday, the kids were staying until Wednesday, and there would be no reinforcements. No school, no camp, no childcare, just me and them. The holidays are notoriously awful to try and do a big thing with your kids to get out of the house because everyone else had the same idea. So I was trying to think of ways for us to use the time. I planned a few activities.

But in the end, we didn’t do most of them. Because we were fine. Everyone got along. I gave one time out. I didn’t need to yell and only a couple times had to be called in to mediate or separate. Instead we were all just good.

Sure, I let them eat more candy than usual. I let them watch TV. I let them play video games. Because if not Christmas break, when? Everyone was in a good mood. We listened to music. Tessa and I played card games over and over again. Graham gave me regular updates on his video game status. Everyone was just good.

I took family pictures, which was a hilarious undertaking. Turns out my camera doesn’t take a wireless remote and no one carried a wired remote in the store so I had to use a self-timer. I also couldn’t find my tripod so I had to set it on a chair, squat down to make sure it was in the right place, hit the button, jump up, sit back down, pull the kids in close, and hope it turned out. Did that about 20 times. The kids were great sports, though. And I need to do it more often.

family picture

The kids left and I didn’t feel tired or worn out or in need of quiet time. I realized I had days left in me, which is much better than I usually feel, even when everyone has school or I keep the kids for a short time. 

I was on my own for New Year’s Eve but had an invitation to go out and took it. I danced in the year and it felt good.

This year was not an easy one. It was not a good one. There were not personal victories. In many ways I accomplished less than the previous year. But this last week was a reminder that there have been lots of little good things along the way, there have been bright spots in the thick darkness.

I do not have a milestone or accomplishment to present as my 2016 thing. I had hoped to finish the first draft of my novel this year but realized this summer that it wasn’t going to happen and made peace with that. Life gets in the way and that is nothing new. But that manuscript is over 80,000 words and I did most of that work this year. If I was going to pick one thing this year that I’m proud of, it’s that this year I decided to act like a person who is a real writer. I call myself a writer. I think of myself as a writer. And the funny thing about that is that you start to believe it eventually, even if I don’t feel like I have a lot to show for my writing this year. It’s a long process, it’s a tough process, and I’m squeezing it into the small openings in my life and that is okay. 

I am not approaching 2017 with any particular goal (though I would really like to start my 2nd draft by June). I am not going to say that it will definitely be better than last year. If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that thinking you are on an upward swing doesn’t mean anything. Things can turn bad quickly and they can stay that way regardless of how hard you work or how much you deserve. I’m building a life and I just want to keep laying bricks this year. And that will be enough no matter what happens.

Best Books of 2016

I had a HARD time making a list this year. Usually when I am reading my #1 book of the year I know it while I am in the middle of it and then things just fall into place with the rest of the list. But not this year. This year no #1 ever showed itself. It wasn’t a bad year. I read so many books I really loved. But ultimately this is my list and it comes down to the sticky factor. Did this book stick in my head? Did it stay with me? Did I continue to talk about it for days and weeks and months afterwards?

Yes, this is MY list. It is not a list of the objectively best books. They are the books that did something to me when I read them. They are also the ones I got to this year. (A few that I read this year that were written last year would have made the list, like The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Dragonfish by Vu Tranand Delicious Foods by James Hannaham.) 

I was not able to select a number one or rank my top 10, but I did manage to  break it into two tiers. Each set is listed alphabetically. (Links are to Amazon, if you purchase through them it helps support the blog. Thanks!)

top 5 books of 2016

Top 5

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. A tragedy of Shakespearean power set in the shacks and the gleaming resorts of Jamaica. A gut punch of a debut novel.

The Hike by Drew Magary. This book came out of nowhere and messed with my head in a way I can’t get over. Terrifying, absurd, utterly unique, and constantly unexpected, with the best ending I’ve read in years.

The Trespasser by Tana French. The Sixth Dublin Murder Squad book is the best yet, a straight-up procedural that is so sharp it could cut glass. I want 5 more Conway books.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. You don’t need me to tell you how good this book is. But you really can believe the hype. 

Version Control by Dexter Palmer. A near-future science fiction novel about loving other people vs. loving what you do, complete with creative and creepy technology and worldbuilding.

Top 6-10 Books of 2016

6-10

Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith. A very honest book about sex from a narrator who can’t manage to be honest about anything else. A spare, gutsy novel about having only one foot out of the closet.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Sprawling and epic in scope, and yet each chapter is such a small and perfect treasure. Generations of one family are divided by slavery and united again.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. People are miracles. It turns out, so are trees. Jahren will open up rooms in your heart you did not know were there. A memoir worth the tears I cried reading it.

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. What starts as a light, romantic romp becomes a serious examination of whether people can change. If Clueless moved to Singapore and Cher wasn’t such a nice girl.

Shelter by Jung Yun. A man’s life unravels as the parents who victimized him are victimized themselves. Old wounds still feel awfully fresh no matter how hard you run. Dark, suspenseful, and full of heartache.

 

And since 10 is not enough, here’s 11-20.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

Sunset City by Melissa Ginsburg

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

 

Honestly, there were a lot of great books this year (as always!) and it was very, very hard to make my list. There are plenty of books not on that list that make my heart hurt. (I’m so sorry, books! I love you!) It was also hard because some of my very favorite books this year were 2015 releases that I read too late. In very strong contention for last year’s top 10 were:

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

And on top of all of those, I read a few backlist titles that just killed it. This was the first year I ever read any Octavia Butler and I feel like I need to seek forgiveness from some literary deity. If you are like me and want to atone, Kindred is a great place to start. Excellent sci-fi, social commentary that makes you shocked it’s 40 years old, and just a rip of a read.

I finally read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saénz, which I’d heard about for a while but definitely did not prioritize enough. Hands down one of my favorite YA  novels of all time. I cried buckets in the best way.

4 of my top 20 are LGBTQ novels, and it’s possible I read more queer fiction this year than any other. (From backlist I read Redefining Realness, Edinburghand The Price of Salt (Carol) along with new releases like Juliet Takes a Breath and If I Was Your Girl.) 

I also re-read the entire Dublin Murder Squad Series from Tana French, which was, I 100% admit, a highlight of the year. I got lost in those books for a few weeks when life was particularly nuts and I needed the escape.

Even though I didn’t get that #1 book that really rocked my world, I got so many stellar reads this year that I can’t complain. 2016 was a good year in reading for me. 

What were your top books of 2016?

Welcome

I have written several posts about moving and could never put any of them up. They were mostly emotion dumps and didn’t make for very good reading, though it felt good to write them. This one started as a few paragraphs I was going to turn into an essay that I was going to try and submit. But then things took a turn and I realized it was now a different thing entirely. The move happened right when it did and everything that’s happened around it is part of it so why avoid the issue? Anyway. It has been a tough move. It has been tougher than I expected. I am getting by but I am not happy. I hope it will get better. And here are some thoughts.

As I get within 20 miles of my destination, my stomach starts to tighten. It isn’t the butterflies of excitement or the churn of anxiety, it’s something inbetween. It’s a feeling I will get to know well in the coming days. I am driving to my new apartment, a place I have never seen in a town I have never visited. The weekend I spent on my leisurely drive from New England to the South, complete with a full day of DC sightseeing, is about to come to an end. The hours I spent alone in the car, drinking a giant soda and listening to an audiobook, have been the most peaceful ones I’ve had in weeks. I am about to leave the bubble of my Civic and return to the work of moving.

From the moment I arrive things start to go wrong and they do not stop. Nothing big enough to declare the move a disaster, but sufficient to make not one thing easy or simple.The bathroom mirror has fallen off its moorings. The alarm starts beeping and won’t stop. My work equipment arrives but the monitor has no power cord and I can’t use any of it for a week. Graham starts his new year-round school only to start a 3-week break two days later. My new coffeemaker is missing a part, without it the coffee is weak and hardly drinkable. All of these and so many more little things add up and add up until it feels like the entire universe is hostile to me. Or perhaps not the universe or fate or anything that abstract, but maybe this place.

I have lived in the South before. I was looking forward to coming back. But something feels off. Have 6 years in New England turned me brittle and bitter? I am skeptical and suspicious of my newly suburban environment. I am used to roads that are too narrow and too crowded, tightly packed buildings and stores with aisles where two people can’t pass each other. Here everything is wide and comfortable and welcoming and I meet it all with distrust.

There is another thing I cannot help but notice. There are Trump signs everywhere. I have lived in red states for much of my life. It isn’t new and yet it feels different than it used to. I have been pondering my first tattoo for years, but now I feel the need to get one soon and make sure it’s highly visible. For the first time in my life I’m pondering piercing my nose. It feels necessary to make it obvious that I am not what they think I am. In Boston everyone was trying so hard to be unique that it didn’t seem worth it to try. Now I feel like I must try as hard as I can, I must go big, I must not be subtle.

The thing I feel mostly is that I am not home. But that’s beside the point because I’m never home. I have moved and moved and moved. I do not have an answer to the question, “Where are you from?” and I pretty much never have. I do not really know what it is to have a home. Which makes me wonder if it’s something more specific than that. Boston was not home, but it was a place where I felt welcome.

Feeling unwelcome is something I’ve known for a long time. I grew up being told I was different and that people hated us. But they also said that we were special and chosen and that’s just what happens when you’re God’s chosen people. I didn’t mind the rude questions, the jokes, the ignorant assumptions about what I believed and what it meant about me as a person. I was openly, proudly, happily Mormon even though I was in a very small minority. I spent a few strange years in the majority, at least outwardly. I felt like I wasn’t the person they all thought I was. It was easy to be there but it was not comfortable.

When I left Mormonism I was unwelcome again, this time from the group that had always held me as one of them.

I went out on my own, settling in heavily red Southern states, doing legal work for those in dire need. I didn’t fit in, but most of the time I didn’t care. This was normal. This was life.

Before now, the most unwelcome I ever felt was when I moved to New England, a place where I expected to be greeted with open arms. Here I was, an overeducated atheist queer liberal, where else would I be able to be so fully myself? But Massachusetts has its own kind of friendship, one that is hard won, one that must be fought for. I spent 6 years there and gradually the hard outer shell cracked open and I found myself not embraced exactly, but for the first time I was in a place where a majority of people were a lot like me. I could say quite openly that I was a queer person and an atheist without worrying about the consequences.

Maybe it’s this whiplash, this return to the world of unwelcome after feeling confident and seen. Maybe I let my guard down and I don’t know how to raise my defenses back up again quite yet. But today my country has told me that I am unwelcome here and so are many others. This time I do not want to crack them open and get past their defenses. This time I do not care if they ever accept me. This time I feel like I must be utterly myself, blatantly myself, conspicuously myself at all times.

Now I am asking myself what that looks like. What does it look like when I do not worry about blending in, but instead figure out how to stand out in a way that feels true. It won’t be a quick or easy answer, but today I know I need to start. There is a long road ahead and I need to do this one thing.

Fun Book Club Picks

I love book clubs. But have you noticed how this thing tends to happen in your book club where every book is about death, war, adultery, loss, grief, etc., etc.? Sometimes you just want to get together with your friends to talk about a book that didn’t leave you heartbroken and sad, am I right? 

affiliate links picToday I’ve got a roundup of picks for your book club or your personal reading. I know that when I’m in a slump or if I’m feeling down, I want a book that’s a little more of a pick me up. And it’s hard for me since my tastes tend towards the dark and twisty. So even my fun and light picks need some meat on their bones, which is essential for a good book club pick that’ll give you an interesting discussion. (Links below are affiliate links that help support the blog.)

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang. This is a newly released debut novel, one of the big ones of the Fall and it’s a great club pick for so many reasons. If you enjoy watching complex family dynamics play out, this will be right up your alley. Charles Wang is a Chinese immigrant who made his fortune in cosmetics, and has just seen it come crashing down. Now the family he raised in luxury doesn’t know they’ve been ruined and Charles decides that what they all need is a road trip. This kind of story could be a downer, but instead it’s full of humor and laughs. And extra special bonus! Scroll down to enter to WIN a copy of The Wangs vs. The World provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt!

You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson. The book of essays by funny women is becoming its own genre, but this is one of my favorites of the bunch. Robinson, who you may know if you listen to the 2 Dope Queens podcast, is a stand up comic and she does not hold back in making sure she squeezes in as many jokes per page as possible while also talking seriously about what it’s like to be black, and a woman, and a comedian in the modern world. Some books of essays are inconsistent, but this one regularly delivers. (Note: Robinson is definitely a millennial and I definitely foresee a potential generation gap if your book club readers are 40+. In that case, go with my other favorite funny woman book that’s also great though more heartfelt: Yes, Please by Amy Poehler.)

The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. If you want a book that manages to be both very real-life and very escapist, somehow this one manages to be both. Becky is a housewife, a mother of three with baby #4 on the way, when she meets movie star Felix. In a brief chance meeting something clicks, and these two most unlikely allies become best friends. My favorite thing about this book is the way it plays with your expectations about what’s supposed to happen in this kind of story, the way you never really know what will happen between these two. If you want to have some real discussions about whether men and women be friends without romance coming into play, the twists and turns of Becky and Felix’s relationship will give your book club a lot to talk about.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. If you don’t read a lot of nonfiction or history, Vowell is a really enjoyable way to learn a lot of fascinating history. I’ve read a whole bunch of her books and this may be the best book club pick, since everyone thinks they know all about the Revolutionary War but it turns out what you learned in school isn’t a very accurate picture. Also if there are any Hamilton lovers in the group, they’ll get plenty of Washington and Lafayette (and a little bit of our man A. Ham as well). I promise that Vowell’s books are so funny and enjoyable while also making you feel smart and informed.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradahl. This one should be an easy sell to your average suburban lady book club. Food! Family! Midwestern accents! But this book takes you by surprise. It is incredibly charming and it’s one of those gimmicky books where every chapter is from a different character and seemingly random lives end up being intertwined, with a big fat bow on top at the very end. Looking through so many different sets of eyes guarantees interesting discussion, and underneath this book’s sweet demeanor is a lot of interesting commentary on modern life. Plus the extra bonus of several recipes you can make and bring to your book club feast.

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes. If anyone in your club watches Scandal or Grey’s Anatomy or HTGAWM, odds are they will be very very happy about this pick. But you don’t need to be a Shonda fan to enjoy this book. Honestly, you don’t need to be a self-help fan to enjoy this book. I hate self-help books. Hate them. And I adored this book so very much. Want to talk about goals? Want to talk about work-life balance? Want some pinterest-worthy inspirational quotes? This book will give you all those things, and even if you have a cold, bitter heart like me, you will be won over by Shonda. You can’t not like her. She is so funny and personable and honest. 

 

And now for our giveaway! One lucky reader will win a copy of The Wangs vs. the World, the new novel by Jade Chang. To enter, just leave a comment below with your light or funny book club pick. Entries are open until Wednesday, October 26th.

Rules: No purchase necessary. By leaving a comment you agree to the rules of this giveaway. One entry per household. Limited to entrants over 18 in the United States. Contest begins as of the time of this post and ends on 10/26/16 at 6 pm Eastern Time. The winner will receive a copy of the novel The Wangs vs. the World. The number of eligible entries received will determine the odds of winning. The winner will be chosen randomly using the plugin And the Winner Is…  Winner will be notified by email and must respond within 48 hours to receive their prize. If the winner does not respond within that time, a new winner will be chosen. The prize will be provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Don’t Mind the Mess is not responsible for any problems with receipt of the prize. This contest is governed by the rules of Massachusetts, void where prohibited.

Disclosure: Thanks to HMH for providing the giveaway prize for this post! 

New Destinations

I moved around a lot growing up. When I tell people that, they ask if my dad was in the military and I say, “No, just lucky.” We moved many times and then stayed put for a while that let me stay in the same place in middle school and high school. Then my parents moved again. Then I went to college and grad school, which included 5 different apartments in 7 years. Then there was my move outside of Houston, my move to Atlanta, 2 other apartments in Atlanta, and I’m now on my 3rd apartment in Boston. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve always thought of myself at being pretty good at moving.

We’re moving next month, something I figured would happen eventually but was not expecting to happen this soon. To answer the basic questions: we’ll be in North Carolina. I am staying at my job but switching to remote. My ex has a job offer there, and if we leave the area we have to both agree to it. Financially, this is a very big step forward to me, both due to lower cost of living, and parts of our divorce agreement that will kick in and mean I have less financial obligations each month. It seems like a place where we can stay long term. So that’s the story.

There are lots of things I’m looking forward to. I will actually be in a solid financial position for the first time since I’ve been single. (Technically things were never really that solid financially for me in my adult life, even when we had easier times while married, those periods were short and spent paying down debt.) I’ve been working for that a long time and I kind of can’t believe it’s actually happening. I’m not sure what people actually do when they have some money. I’ll be enjoying the new world of not accumulating debt, building savings, starting college funds, and actually maybe even taking a vacation.

And Boston keeps giving me reasons to be happy to go. No more Boston winters! The crazy drivers, the traffic, the lack of central air, the high cost of living. 

But as this starts to become more of a reality and less of a theoretical idea, I am not feeling a lot of excitement or positivity. For all my ideas of myself as someone who’s good at moving, now that I’m an adult with two kids and everything that goes with that, I am exhausted by the physical logistics of moving. I haven’t even finished unpacking from my last move, which I guess is a plus? But I still haven’t forgotten the work and exhaustion that came with the last move only a few months ago. And another round of apartment hunting feels like it’s happening way too soon as well.

Mostly, though, I drive around Boston, I take the T, I feel like things are familiar. I realize that I have done a lot in my 6 years. I have gotten to know the city really well, and not just the neighborhoods I live in. I am realizing how long it will take until I feel comfortable again the way I do now.

I remember the first year in Boston, before cell phones gave driving directions, how lost and frustrated and alone I felt all the time. It will be easier now because I have a job and I don’t have a cranky toddler and I have a bunch of places on the internet full of friends. But I seem to be missing that excitement and adrenaline I would feel in a new city. 

Part of this is surely the complexity of having to move two households, which means more communication with my ex. Moving for someone else’s job and not mine (this is the 3rd city in a row where I am going for another person’s career) sucks, and even if my career will be in better shape this time, there’s the lack of autonomy that hurts. Then there’s the concerns about how things will go for the kids in new schools. There’s the loneliness of working at home full-time. Oh, and let’s not forget that our new state passed a law that’s hostile to the LGBT community while the state I live in now just passed a bill protecting gender identity in public accommodations and has officially instituted sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes for years. I don’t mind so much going from one political climate to another, that’s not unusual for me, but moving to a place that is actively trying to legislate against my sexual orientation is new. And as a single and dating person, it will definitely have an impact on my life.

There is a lot to do. The thought of all the work ahead makes me tired. Leaving friends makes me sad. And I’m not yet feeling very peppy about all of it, even though I feel like this is a good decision for us. It has been a long summer, I’ve been tired for a lot of it, and I’m hoping the general fatigue will pass, I’ll start getting ready, and everything will come together.

I didn’t really mean for this to be such a melancholy post. But as I’m processing all of this, that is where I’m at today in particular. I know there will be days ahead where things are fun and exciting. And at the very least I get a private road trip down the east coast, which I am oddly looking forward to. 

I’ve got about 6 weeks left to enjoy all the things I love about Boston (including at least one apple-picking trip) and get a chance to say goodbye. So much has happened to me here, it feels like I may be leaving a few chapters of my life behind. I think it may even be the final page of this divorce chapter. There’s been a lot of struggle and a lot of accomplishment, but it has started to feel this year that things are taking on a new character. My life feels more my own than it ever has. And this may be the final piece that makes things really start taking off. I hope it is.