The Mystery of Who You Are

When your child is an infant and a toddler, you don’t know a whole lot about who they are, but at least you can describe them. Sure, that description has little to do with their personality and a lot more to do with how they sleep, what they eat, their gross and fine motor capabilities, but you can at least pin those things down. And maybe for some kids they stay that way during the terrible 3’s, but some of what makes that age so tough for me isn’t just the constant frustration of a tyrannical preschooler, but the lack of consistency. 

Tessa just turned 4 and I cannot for the life of me pin her down. Fickleness may be her most distinctive trait, to be honest.

Sure, I can nail down a few likes and dislikes. She likes accessories and riding her bike and bunnies. But you could pick out something that’s absolutely perfect for her and she’ll hate it. She doesn’t have a consistent favorite toy, what she loves today she cares about not one whit tomorrow. 

 

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Some of this is garden variety developmental whatever. She asks for something, then when given it 5 seconds later is now furious that you’ve given her THIS and not THAT even though this is exactly the thing she begged and pleaded for. But there is no old reliable, no go-to, nothing that I always know will cheer her up. 

This adjustment is a little hard because Graham was such a child of habit and ritual and routine. He fit into a very specific box. It’s an unusual and eccentric box, but it’s a box nonetheless. He responds well to praise. He loves a certain kind of toy. He enjoys a certain kind of game. And while these things change over the years, there is a lot of consistency from day to day and week to week. It’s comforting to know how he’s going to respond, even if I don’t always like it.

But Tessa? You’ve got me. She doesn’t respond consistently to praise or discipline. I can say for sure that she is stubborn. 

Sometimes she is vocal and opinionated. Sometimes she is content to stay in the background. Sometimes she blends in with her friends and is totally mellow. Sometimes she is bossy. Sometimes she is the little sister who repeats everything her older brother says. 

I feel like I should know more about who she is by now. I’m her mother, right?

But I’m also the kind of parent who recognizes that my kids have their own very deep and very strong inner life that hardly involves me at all. I don’t want to put pressure on her to be a certain way. I want to give her the power to define herself at her own pace. I just get impatient about who this little one is.

I’m also acutely aware of how little I know of her because I know that autism presents in very unexpected ways with girls. Our family is a prime model of this. Graham who follows a very well-worn type, and Tessa who doesn’t fit any type at all. Her therapists don’t have any more of a clue than we do, but everyone agrees that she’s generally happy, fun to be around, and quite bright. 

It’s okay if I have to keep waiting to see what her challenges will be. There are certainly worse problems we could be having, I definitely know that. For now, I still won’t know when she’ll hop happily along beside me and when she’ll refuse to stand up even though we are going to do something fun and go somewhere she wants to go and why will she not just stand up already (while Graham starts losing it in the background). For now, she still doesn’t quite have the words and the awareness to tell me how she feels or what she wants all the time, even when she is upset. 

But I do give her full props for being a master of standing her ground. Like the other night when she wouldn’t stop making noise and kicking the wall in bed. She was keeping Graham awake and making him increasingly upset, so I pulled her out of the room and had her sit in the hall for a while. Despite very lenient bargaining, she refused to stop making noise and when I let her back in she went right back to kicking the wall. So she stayed in the hall. She planted her flag in the hall. And she wanted to make sure I knew it.

 

 

She fell asleep with that scowl still on her face rather than go lay nicely in her bed. I may not enjoy dealing with that kind of stubborn but I can’t help but admire it. 

I think of all the traits I want my daughter to have…

That level of commitment and willingness to flout authority? I feel like she’ll be okay.

Cozy Up with Winter Books

Even though we tend to save the beach books for summer and the important tomes for fall, every year some of my absolute favorites come out early. Last year two of the year’s most buzzed books, A Little Life and Girl on the Train were out in March and January, respectively. So happy us, with so much to read (and reserve!) in these chilly months.

These are listed alphabetically because you cannot make me choose. All links are to Amazon, all are affiliate links and purchasing through them helps support the blog!

Out Now

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksThe Ballad of Black Tom Cozy Up with Winter Books by Victor LaValle is one of those unusual books that is doing many, many things at one time and yet it also manages to be wildly entertaining. This is Horror, I know that’s an automatic out for some of you, but it’s also a big throwback, specifically to the writing of H. P. Lovecraft. The problem with Lovecraft is that a lot of his writing was explicitly and horribly racist. And yet he’s considered the father of modern horror fiction. LaValle, who is one of my favorite writers and I will read anything he does because he is always interesting, basically writes  his own Lovecraft story, except at the heart of it is a black man who experiences the real horrors of racial injustice. It’s a real feat. And, you know, it’s also a really great supernatural horror story whether or not you love the old school style.

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksThe Guest Room Cozy Up with Winter Books by Chris Bohjalian was the first 2016 release I read, way back in summer. Bohjalian is a pretty reliable writer who moves between pretty much any genre, he is so good at raising tension and holding it. His new book is basically a thriller that starts with a bachelor party that goes horribly wrong. You cannot stop turning the pages of this book, and I am not joking. Just read the first chapter and see if you can quit. And when you finally put it down and take a breath you realize that you just finished a unique examination of rape culture and sexual trafficking along with all the fast-paced suspense. 

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksJuliet Takes a Breath Cozy Up with Winter Books  by Gabby Rivera was a title I knew I had to pick up after following the author as an editor at Autostraddle, including some excellent OITNB recaps. And how could I not pick up a story about a newly out lesbian Latina from the Bronx who is suddenly a fish-out-of-water in hippie Portland? These days I find myself wanting something different, dammit, as I quit book after book about young white kids moving to New York City. Snooze. I want to hear something new. I want to see something different. And this fit the bill perfectly. We need more.

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksThe Opposite of Everyone Cozy Up with Winter Books by Joshilyn Jackson is the latest entry from one of my long-time loved authors. Jackson’s books are always a mix of dark and light, funny and sad. This one is a new step and I approve of the new direction. Do not let the cutesy cover fool you. Paula is a badass lawyer… and also a mess. Not the cute kind of mess either. The blackout drunk kind. Paula is still recovering from her disastrous childhood, biracial and fatherless, raised by a white woman who named her after an Indian goddess, never staying in the same place for long, and eventually going to prison and sending Paula to be a ward of the state. Paula’s past comes back to haunt her when she gets a letter from her long-lost mother and decides to track her down. The book moves through time, from Paula’s childhood to the present, as she tries to figure out who she is and who she wants to be.

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksThe Queen of the Night Cozy Up with Winter Books by Alexander Chee is the rare historical novel I not only pick up willingly but devour. If you’re an opera fan, like I am, this one is a must-read. Even if you’re not, there is a reason this book has been so crazy with buzz in the book world. It’s the closest readalike I’ve ever found to one of my favorite classics: The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s full of twists, betrayals, double-crosses, secrets, etc. etc. etc. It goes from the circus to the brothel to the palace to the opera house and plenty more along the way. I do not want to spoil any of it for you, but if you’re like me and usually don’t read much historical fiction, you may want to reconsider.

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksUp to This Pointe Cozy Up with Winter Books by Jennifer Longo is the only YA on this list, but I’m a total sucker for a ballerina book. (I know some of you are the same.) Harper is a high school ballerina who has planned out her life with her best friend Kate. When that plan goes off the rails, Harper decides to escape from everyone and head to an internship in Antarctica just like her ancestor the famous explorer who tried to reach the South Pole. A fun contemporary YA with a truly unusual setting. A light and easy read that will make you grateful that no matter how cold it is where you are, at least you’re not in Antarctica!

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksThe V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex Cozy Up with Winter Books edited by Amber J. Keyser. Sometimes I read books because my friends write for them. Sometimes this goes well and other times it doesn’t. This time was one of the good ones. If every teenage girl got a copy of this book, the world would probably be a better place. (Ditto teenage boys.) The main goal of this collection of personal nonfiction is to show teenagers just how different that loss of virginity can be, how it looks for different kinds of people, and what it means for the rest of your life. There is everything from the unplanned casual fling to the serious and meticulously planned event. There is straight and gay and bi and trans. Plus there’s a great list of resources at the end, including sources of information on sex for teens and a bunch of YA books that address a variety of important issues.

 Cozy Up with Winter BooksWhat Belongs to You Cozy Up with Winter Books by Garth Greenwell is a slim debut novel by a poet that is full of lyrical prose and raw emotion. Usually when I hear that kind of description I think, meh. But this book does something I can’t quite explain. It’s so vulnerable and honest that it’s like seeing someone’s soul spilled out on paper. This book sat on my nightstand for a few months while I was stuck in a reading slump. I put it down because I knew that this novel needed the kind of attention I didn’t have yet. I waited, and while I waited I heard rave after rave about how this book is part of the new gay literary canon. And when I finally felt back to myself, I picked it up and I was happy to see that it was just as good as everyone said it was.

Coming Soon

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksBlack Apple Cozy Up with Winter Books by Joan Crate (March 1) In Canada, the government and the Catholic church used to remove native children from their homes to be educated and civilized. This book looks at what that means for one Blackfoot girl and the nun running the school she is taken to against her will. It starts a little slow, but if you’re one of those people who likes to read books that show you a part of history you never knew, this is a great pick.

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksThe Passenger Cozy Up with Winter Books by Lisa Lutz (March 1) Full disclosure, I haven’t read this one yet. But it’s on my to-read list as a long-time fan of Lisa Lutz, who wrote the hilarious Spelman mystery series. I hear lots and lots of good things about this thriller following a woman trying to hide off the grid.

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksThe Travelers Cozy Up with Winter Books by Chris Pavone (March 8) Pavone wrote the popular and satisfying thrillers The Ex-Pats and The Accident and he specializes in normal people who aren’t actually so normal. This time it’s Will Rhodes, a travel writer who is blackmailed into a life of intrigue and must hide it from his wife.

 Cozy Up with Winter Books Cozy Up with Winter BooksVersion Control Cozy Up with Winter Books by Dexter Palmer (February 23) Sometimes I know when a book will be on my Top 10 list before the book is even over. And this is one of those books. I love this book. I love it deeply. I love it so much I am considering reading it again. It hits me in all my sweet spots. A near-future setting following an unhappily married couple. She has a truly unique job for a dating company, he runs a physics lab that’s on the verge of a big discovery. I really don’t want to tell you more so I don’t spoil it. But I will say this book makes a great companion to last year’s popular Fates & Furies with a time travel twist.

Sorry, I’ve Hit My Quota

Oh hi, blog. 

I am not one of those people who apologizes for not blogging. And honestly, for the first two weeks I didn’t give it a second thought that I hadn’t blogged. But now we’re about to hit a month with no posts. In fact, if I scheduled this for Monday, the way I normally would, January would be my first month without blogging since 2007. More than EIGHT years I’ve blogged at least once every month. Not because it was a goal or a benchmark but because I always wanted to blog at least once every month.

It’s not that I didn’t want to blog in January. And yet I didn’t blog. And I kept wondering what was happening.

Then  I realized. I have a word quota.

The thing that is different this month is that whenever I have time to write, I work on my novel. When my head is in that writing space where I’m feeling clear and quiet and ready to go, I work on my novel. And after I write my novel, I am done with words. Finished. Complete. 

There’s the time factor, of course. My blogging frequency has been low as long as I’ve been in this single-working-parent thing. Time is precious and I am tired and I need to have my brain in a good place when I blog. Back in the day when I was at home with my kids, my blog was my escape and my outlet. I still see it as an important part of myself and I still value this space, but I don’t have the capacity these days to post often.

So yeah. I didn’t realize it was possible for me to run out of words. But I guess it is. I’m trying to get 1,500+ words every time I sit down at the novel. And sometimes it takes an hour and sometimes it takes 3 hours. And especially if I’ve been working for 3 hours I do not want to write anything else. I do not want to write an email. I can do tweets but that’s about it.

I don’t feel bad, though. Not at all. Writing my novel is what I WANT to do. It’s what I’ve wanted to do for most of my life and while this isn’t the first time I’ve tried, this is the first time I feel like I’m going to finish. (I passed 25,000 words this morning. Most novels are around 80,000-90,000. So I’m getting close to 1/3 way done, but it’s very possible mine will be longer. I know, you’re shocked.)

Maybe once I finish and start editing, writing on my blog will go way up, since I’ll want to do more original and carefree writing. Totally possible. Maybe I’ll be putting up one post a month for the rest of the year while I work on this thing. (My only goal is to have the first draft done by the end of the year. It’s a generous goal, considering my current pace. I want to give myself the time and space to breathe and roll around with it and wrestle with it if I need to.)

So hey, little blog, you’re not unloved or alone. You’ve just moved another rung down the priority ladder. I know you’re used to it. 

If you miss my sparkling personality, I still do far too much writing on Twitter.

It’s Good If I Say It’s Good

I am really used to sitting down at the end of the year and looking back and thinking, “Well, it wasn’t a good year but things got better and you got through it.” That didn’t happen this year, and it’s kind of weird, but I’m not going to complain. When you divorce after a relationship dies a slow death, you have a long string of bad years. It becomes what you expect. And even last year I remember thinking 2014 was terrible and I wasn’t at all sad to see it go even though plenty of good things happened and I ended the year much better off than I began it.

This year, though. It was a gamechanger. I feel more comfortable in my skin. I feel better about what I’ve accomplished. I feel confident about next year even though I have absolutely no idea what next year will look like. 

I set goals at the beginning of the year, nice general ones that I could meet in some way. It was helpful coming off another bad year to tell myself that 2015 could be better and to decide on the ways that could happen. The only goal I didn’t meet was taking pictures of the kids. (I’m sad for the lack of nice camera pictures, but we had a good year where snapping a phone pic often was all we could manage, which is fine by me.)

Mostly, though, this year brought a lot of unexpected joy. I was not expecting a new job, complete with more responsibility, more opportunity, more visibility, and more fulfillment. I was not expecting the bookternet to open up to me the way it did. I was not expecting Hamilton, which brought me my #1 evening of the year and many hours of pleasure. I was not expecting to do the kind of writing I did, including a very public coming out.

I’ve started to define who I am and what I do. I started new partnerships and new freelance relationships. I wrote pieces I was proud of, I pitched and was accepted. I finally started the novel that I kept telling myself I would start “someday.” I more than doubled my speaking gigs, with 7 presentations this year. I read WAY more books than I expected (my goal was 100, I’m past 150)

The unexpectedness is what’s made it so great. I have been steadily expecting little even if I hope for and work for more. The only problem is that I’m not sure I can maintain that. I see the progress I’ve made and sometimes I get impatient when others don’t see it or don’t realize my value and expertise. But I also know that it may not make sense to go back. I may have reached a point where my confidence in myself and my abilities is a critical piece of making more happen and continuing to move up in the world. And that confidence is going to be dashed, it’s just part of life.

I’ve been blogging for over 14 years, and I started writing in earnest as a teenager, but I think this year is one of those critical years where I found my voice. It’s not the first time I found it. It may seem weird to find your voice over and over again, but it’s true. It is not something you find and then it’s found. It is a constant act of rediscovery and rebirth as you catch up to the change in your life and what you’re capable of.

This year I reminded myself many times to stop and appreciate good things. I really needed it after last year, where I tended to get really mentally bogged down in how hard things are. Things are still hard. It’s not that 2015 was the year things got easy. There’s been a little bit of improvement, but it’s still very tight when it comes to finances and scheduling and everything else. I actually did stop and appreciate along the way, and I think it has a lot to do not just with me feeling better this year but with me doing better this year. I really worked on appreciating good things, especially good things I worked for. A lot of that started in the second half of the year and, sure enough, the second half of the year was where almost everything happened. I don’t know what it was exactly, but somewhere around there I started feeling like I could do more. And once my mindset changed, things just happened. (Okay, they didn’t just happen. I worked my tail off and they happened.)

So. I’m really proud to say it was a good year. Even if, from the outside using the criteria most people would use, it was only okay. It was good, dammit. It was really good. I am so aware of every little triumph along the way. And I don’t care if that means I’m not using objective criteria to evaluate it. How I feel is the criteria that matters most to me, and that’s the one that’s been the best of all.

Holiday Spirit

It is Saturday, the 19th of December, aka Christmas Eve at Mom’s House. The calendar has the kids at their dad’s for Christmas, which is fine. I’ve never been a you-have-to-celebrate-on-the-actual-day kind of person. 

It is a lot like a normal day, with the occasional festivity thrown in. 

Graham asks to watch television, we run errands instead. We stop at the dollar store where we will continue my family’s tradition of all the kids buying each other presents. (When I go to my parents’ house for Christmas, this continues, with my dad to this day passing each of us a stack of one-dollar bills to cover it.) This mission involves secrecy and surprise, which is part of the fun, since you’re all shopping in the same store at the same time. Graham is nervous about this endeavor, which I anticipated. He knows that when they split up, I’ll stay with Tessa. He has lost it in the middle of a public place on more occasion when he cannot immediately see me. But we talk it through, the store is small, and Tessa chooses an Iron Man puzzle for Graham quickly, just in time for him to call out for me. I peek in his bag and see a Frozen puzzle for her. We walk to the register, I hold both the secret packages, Tessa says to Graham, “I got you puzzle,” and I immediately shush her and remind her it’s supposed to be a secret. “But it is a secret,” Graham insists, since he doesn’t know what kind of puzzle. By the time we get to the car he tells her he got her a puzzle, too. So much for surprises.

After this delightful trip, it is all downhill as we try to get through a grocery trip. I make threats. They don’t listen. The car cart is certainly the heaviest it’s ever been, have they doubled in size? We ride home with the kids in penitent silence hoping to atone.

At home it is whining for snacks and whining about who doesn’t want hugs right now and finally I cut through it all by letting them at the gingerbread house kit I brought home from work. It buys us about 20 minutes of holiday harmony before they eat all the candy that wasn’t used for decorating and demand more snacks.

As we hit late afternoon we get peak How-long-until-dinner? “One minute less than when you asked me last time.” But finally the time passes. We eat dips (veggies with dip, chips with dip, apples with dip) for dinner and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frozen and wait for the time to open Christmas Eve pajamas.

You always think holidays will be different but with kids they can never get too far below 80% normal. 

 

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

But somehow on Sunday, our Christmas, we manage to get about as close to holiday magic as I think is possible. They are excited and tickled in the 10 minutes or so it takes to open presents. I let them eat all the candy from their stockings. We open Graham’s legos and start to build. Tessa puts on her new necklace. We watch a movie. Everyone plays a game together. Graham helps Tessa with her duplo set. I bake. Twice. 

There are still two time outs (one for each kid) and they’re sent upstairs before bedtime when I’ve about had it and the requests for snacks all day long are nearly relentless and Tessa doesn’t eat the sandwich she asked for and so on. But we have more cooperation, more cuddles, more general happy than usually happens on a day when we don’t actually leave the house. It’s not exactly a Christmas miracle, but it is a pleasant surprise.

The evenings are easier this year. Last year I was really depressed when I stayed up on Christmas Eve to wrap. This year is my second go at single-parent-holiday-prep and because I already know I will have Danny and Bing and Sam Adams there with me, it isn’t so daunting. I also don’t have anything to assemble this year, a plus. (You know, assuming you don’t count the 6 hours I spend helping the 6-year-old put together his lego set. And honestly, I’ll take that because peace and harmony and quiet.) Last year I was much more hung up on everything that I’d always expected the secret holiday wrapping to be, a special little party of your very own. It’s not that I still don’t get disappointed or sad or lonely because I definitely do. But it’s been 2 and a half years and I have not had a serious relationship that entire time and single has become the default. Which isn’t bad, honestly. This is still the rough part, I’m still right in the weeds of the holidays, but it is better. Everything seems at least a little better this year. That is nothing to sneeze at.