A Belated, Grateful Goodbye to 2016

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This is my year-in-review post, albeit a week or so late. Hey, that’s just the way 2016 went.

So, it’s been a while. Happy New Year. How are you? How have your fall and early winter been? I’m not going to blow smoke: the election knocked the wind out of me, and my funk translated into a real season of writer’s block.

Oh, who am I kidding? 2016 felt often like a year of unending writer’s block. It sucked the creativity and the prose right out of me – but that pales in comparison to what it did to so many other people. It was a rotten egg of a year, in altogether too many ways.

You don’t need me to rehash the stinkbombs that last year laid. But, with this being a so-called year-in-review post, I suppose I should at least take a look at how my goals for 2016 ended up.

When last we checked in at mid-year, things were looking good. I was on track to meet most of my goals.

And then, the #suckysummerof16 hit. Followed by the fall funk. What’s that they say about all good intentions? Let’s review.

I wanted to read. I missed getting lost in books that weren’t about baby sleep and toddler temperament. I picked out 11 books that I’d had on my to-read list and said if I read even half of them, I’d consider it a win. Guess what? I read 19 books! I’m almost certain that that’s more than I’d read in the four previous years combined. Some fiction, some non-fiction, some that stunk up the joint, and some that left me clamoring for more. (The best of the bunch: Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld, and A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles, by Mary Elizabeth Williams.) But I read only two books in the entire last quarter of the year, when I spent more time falling into (and digging myself back out of) social media rabbit holes than turning pages.

I wanted to write. Well, I did…some. I had designs on writing for the blog once a week, submitting to more and different sites, setting aside time each week at lunch to write. Not so much. But I’m grateful to Lacuna Loft, Scary Mommy, and The Manifest-Station for running strikingly different pieces of mine. As I’d missed losing myself in others’ writing, I miss getting lost in an essay of mine own, now. It’s time to get back to the keyboard.

I wanted to work out. I found barre, and I loved it…for a while. Then it got kind of repetitive, and less fun, and I lost steam. And then our treadmill literally started smoking, and my butt found a cozy and warm place on the couch. You know how this story goes. I’m not beating myself up for not finding a consistent workout habit in 2016; there were many points through the year when I simply needed some mindless TV and a cup of tea and my pjs more than a water bottle and a running mix and my sneakers. Some years are just going to go that way. All that said – my mental health now demands that I change it up in this department in 2017. Stay tuned.

I wanted to dress up. Ah, Stitch Fix. Such a fun friend for a while, but it turned out to be one of those who’s good for a season but not for a lifetime. That’s okay. I loved trying on the clothes, and writing the recap posts, and learning more about what’s in style and what looks good on me. It was a great way to swap out the old, ill-fitting clothes in my closet for things that I’m excited to wear. I also tried out Rocksbox (jewelry rental!) and Rent the Runway (fancy dress rental that now isn’t stuffed in the back of my closet!).

I wanted to get out, and get away. I count this one in the success column. I went back to my annual girls weekend, we got out for date nights, and we finally got away for a kid-free night to a friend’s wedding. Gotta keep a good streak going this year.

I wanted to get back to gratitude. I have never regretted taking the time to keep a gratitude journal. As I’ve told many people, I believe firmly in the power of gratitude; the more I look for the good, the more I find it. And yet, I went quiet in my gratitude journal for long stretches of 2016, most notably from November 8 on. It was a time when I arguably needed to pay more attention to the small things I was grateful for every day – because even in a time when so much has felt uncertain and frustrating and scary and infuriating, good things have still been happening – and yet I couldn’t pick up the pen. I lost the string on my daily habit, and on my lists of the things I loved, learned, and felt grateful for each month.

I plan to get back to my Three Good Things posts later this month, but for the time being, a few thoughts that I haven’t captured here, yet:

  • Katie turned two in October (yes, I still owe her a birthday letter).
  • I hit my nine-year cancerversary in November. I had two regular visits with my endocrinologist in which he used the terms “stable” and “low risk.”
  • All things Royals, including Netflix’s The Crown, which served as a welcome distraction in the weeks around the election.
  • My kids fell in love this year with everything Christmas, including light displays — “More lights, momma! I see more lights!” — and my all-time fave, the Muppets Christmas album…to the point that we may or may not still be listening to it. “Five go-o-o-l-d rings, bah-dum-dum.”

I’m okay with a little leftover seasonal spirit in the form of Kermit and Miss Piggy carrying us into the start of 2017. I’ll have more to say soon about what I hope the year ahead holds for me, but I’m wishing right now — for those near and far — good health, love, and PEACE.

 

Reading, Watching, Listening [the All-Pumpkin, All-the-Time Edition]

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If my summer media diet was one of fluff – at least until the summer went to hell in a handbasket and I gorged on heavy, difficult news and commentary – I’m looking to mix it up a little more this fall. Call it the pumpkin spice fall to-do list of books, tv, and audio, if you will (and I will, because pumpkin spice haters be damned, the fall is my happy time, and as far as I can tell, pumpkin just makes it better).

On my list as I pretend it’s not 80 degrees out and wear a sweater anyway:

Reading

Over the summer, I had a grand plan that the fall would be my time for “self-improvement” books. Then I added about 30 books to my to-read list, and now I have no theme other than “finish them before my library loan runs out” or “just finish them, already.”

  • Better Than Before. Gretchen Rubin’s newest, about forming and keeping habits and (of course) how habits contribute to happiness. I already knew a lot of what’s in this book thanks to her weekly podcast (Happier), but it was a good read nonetheless. If you’ve read the book or listen to the podcast, you know about her Four Tendencies framework; for the record, I’m a classic Obliger.
  • A Series of Catastrophes and Miracles. Mary Elizabeth Williams’ memoir of her diagnosis, treatment, and recurrence of melanoma — along with a straight-forward discussion of how immunology is changing cancer treatment for some patients — is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I’ll have more to say about this book soon, but for now, put it on your list. While you’re at it, follow Mary Elizabeth on Twitter and read her stuff at Slate, too.
  • Miller’s Valley. No, really, I’m going to finish this. It’s Anna Q.! How can I not? Yet somehow, other books keep creeping in ahead of it…
  • On Writing. Stephen King’s book about his craft makes so many writers’ must-read lists and favorite quotations that I figure it’s about time I read it, too.
  • Big Magic. It’s been on my shelf for a year, just as my creative writing has gone through its own fits and starts. Maybe this book from Elizabeth Gilbert, all about encouraging your creative self, will give me a nudge?
  • News, news, and more news. I mean, let’s be honest here. The headlines are driving me mad and sapping my ability to focus, but I’m reading them anyway. My eyes (and brain) will be grateful for November 9.
  • Go Fug Yourself. The antidote to the news, namely the weekly Royals Round-Up. Heather and Jessica always seem to know just when to drop in a few pictures of horribly dressed stars at a premiere or a critique of yet another pair of Kate Middleton’s beige heels to distract me.

Watching

  • Pitch. Now in lieu of watching the Sox play into October (THANKS, Porcello and Price), I’ll be watching this new (fictional) show about the first female MLB pitcher. A great concept for girls who love baseball to see themselves on the field. I hope it sticks around (and not only because it also stars my long-time celebrity crush, Mark-Paul Gosselaar).
  • Football! Fall means football in our house – namely, fatty football parties with friends. They’re a little different than our pre-kid days, as I wrote here, but still a great way to round out the weekend, and they give me a chance to continue to wear my Vince Wilfork jersey. #75 for life, baby. Touchdown, Patriots!
  • Washington Week. We rarely watch Meet the Press anymore; it’s just never been the same since Tim Russert died, and 10:30 on Sunday mornings isn’t exactly prime TV-watching time in our house anymore. But Fridays at 8? I can make time for a half-hour of civilized political discussion with Gwen Ifill.
  • The Affair. We originally had Showtime for Homeland, and stayed for The Affair because McNulty. Now I’m past the point of even hate-watching Homeland, but I’ll gladly re-up our Showtime subscription for The Affair, a show where, to paraphrase showrunner Sarah Treem, “everyone’s an asshole.” It’s back on November 20, just in time to fill my election void. (Related/unrelated: as creepy as it may sound, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this show because I watched the first episode in the hospital the day after Katie was born.)

Listening

Full disclosure: I had to declare bankruptcy on some of the podcasts I subscribe to; I just had so many unplayed episodes, stretching back into the spring in some cases. But my love for the medium is unabated. Bring me my earbuds!

  • Rick Steves’ Ireland. We’re starting to plan for a trip to Ireland next year! At least half the fun of travel (for me) is the planning and the anticipation, and these episodes about Irish sights and culture are getting me excited.
  • Tony Kornheiser. He’s no longer doing a radio show, just a podcast from “an undisclosed location in Chevy Chase,” but with all the familiar trappings of the old show, ridiculous rants and all.
  • Election podcasts (for the next three weeks, at least). If I’m reading about the election, and I’m watching about the election, you know I’m listening to podcasts about the election, too. In my feed: Keepin It 1600, an unabashedly partisan look at the presidential race from former Obama and Clinton comms staffers — now twice a week, because that’s really what my psyche needs — and Pantsuit Politics, a pod from two friends, one from the right and one from the left, in search of nuance. Anyone who can find nuance in this election has my ear.

What’s on your list these days? What’s missing from mine?

2016 Intentions

Hey, would you look at that. It’s 2016. In fact, it’s been 2016 for some time now. I was “intending” to write this post at, say, the beginning of the year. But like Gretchen Rubin, who’s come around to the idea of sending Valentine’s Day cards instead of holiday cards, because that’s when she can get them done, here I am with my intentions for 2016. Because this is when I’ve gotten them done.

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I’m using the word “intentions” intentionally. These aren’t resolutions or goals. I know it’s a difference of semantics, but there’s something about the setting of resolutions and goals that just sets me up to disappoint myself. I mean, it’s mid-February. How resolved can I possibly be?

(On a related note, since I’m starting this with 10.5 months left in the year, do I get to pro-rate my success? To be determined in the year-in-review post.)

Last year, I did set a word of the year. It was “present,” and I failed miserably. I didn’t do much living in the moment, I let my gratitude practice wither, and my monkey mind sped ahead to the to-do list of tomorrow, next week, next month all too often. But I’m giving myself a break on all of that. In many ways, 2015 was a great year, but as I wrote in December, it was filled with its fair share of bumps, too.

So, this year, no word. But maybe a theme. And the theme is: me. I fell into a mom rut last year, consumed by everything that needed to happen while juggling full-time work and the baby and the toddler. I became a cliché – no time to read and little time to write, no time to workout, no time to go out.

It’s time to break those habits. Because cliché is sad, but martyrdom is worse, and I don’t want to end up there. So, a few intentions for a less clichéd 2016:

I want to read. I think I read a grand total of two books last year, not counting the kid sleep books I read over and over again (to no avail). I’d especially love to read some fiction, which I feel like I’ve floated far away from. I miss escaping into a book, that feeling when you just can’t wait to find a free minute to open the pages back up (or turn the iPad back on). I’ve already made a little progress on this point, in part by deleting Facebook from my phone. Time when I used to mindlessly scroll is now taken up with a few quick pages, which has helped me already to read Jessica Turner’s The Fringe Hours, on finding more time in your day (how meta is that?), and My Other Ex, an anthology about women’s friendships.

Other books on my reading list right now that I’d love to get through this year:

  • Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs (I started this, um, two years ago. An Anna book that I haven’t finished?!? You can tell by that very fact that reading took a nose dive for me.)
  • Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin
  • In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume
  • Kindness Wins, by Galit Breen
  • Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson (the Bloggess)
  • Rising Strong, by Brene Brown
  • When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  • Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler

If I even get through half of those, I’ll call it a win.

What books are on your nightstand, in your Kindle, or on your library waiting list?

I want to write. Writing makes me happy. But finding the time to sketch out a piece, edit it, and send it out into the world has been tough, of late. I spent a chunk of January taking a class on finding balance as a writer, and carving out time to create. I came up with some good ideas – and then fell horribly behind when the snow hit. I’m committed to finishing the class, and then to actually following through on my plans for making time to write on a more regular basis. The things that make my heart sing shouldn’t be last on my to-do list.

I want to work out. Isn’t this on everyone’s list? But at some point this year, for the first time in more than FOUR years, I will be neither pregnant nor breastfeeding. My body will be back to being mine, and it’s time I stop treating it like a garbage heap. I’ve coasted on nursing to help burn calories since Katie was born 15 months ago, but now it’s time to actually get back to some physical fitness if I’m going to be able to justify dessert. I’ve started barre classes once a week, and I’m aiming to run on the treadmill two other times a week. I’d even like to run a 5k this year. In the fall. Maybe. (It would be my first race in almost five years!)

I want to dress up. Stitch Fix has revitalized my wardrobe far more than the several pieces I’ve kept from the styling service alone would show. I hate spending money on clothes, a fact that my closet made painfully obvious when I took inventory back in the fall. But spending a bit on some good pieces turns out to be worth it for mind and body alike. I’m sticking with Stitch Fix. My next box arrives March 9!

I want to get out, and get away. Babysitters are expensive, and it’s hard for one parent to take care of both kids for a whole weekend. But there’s value in investing in date nights that require clothes other than yoga pants and entertainment other than Netflix, and in B getting some solo time with Teddy and Katie while I return to my annual Girls’ Weekend. (That’s right, ladies, Michele’s back! Look out, New Hampshire!)

I want to get back to gratitude. I kept up my monthly(ish) Three Good Things posts last year, but I found it easier to find things I’d loved and learned than those I’d felt grateful for. I think that’s because I stopped looking as intentionally for the good. This year, I want to get back to listing five things I’m grateful for each day. It’s a lesson I’ve learned over and over again: the more I look for the good, the more good I find.

What do you intend to do this year, and what have you already accomplished? I’ll be back in a few months to let you know how my intentions are working out.

The Give and Take of Pumping: A Surprisingly Bittersweet Look Back

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So much about the holiday season is about giving – giving thanks, giving gifts, giving love, and reflecting on what others have given us.

In some cases, those “others” aren’t people, but objects. In my case, I’ve spent some time thinking about what my trusty breast pump gave me. It took plenty, trust me, what with the three times a day, 30 minutes each time that I spent hooked up to it during the work week, plus nights and weekends. But when I packed it away for the last time, I was surprised to realize just how much it gave me, too.

Head over to What the Pump Gave Back on BonBon Break to read more.

And while you’re there, take a minute to read about the important work that WaterAid, BonBon Break’s December sponsor, is doing all over the world to reach 130,000 moms and babies with clean water.

Finding My Muse: What I’ve Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To

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Early in the summer I was feeling stuck, without time or inspiration to write. I found a much-needed jolt in a Q&A on my friend Callie Feyen’s blog. (Do you read Callie’s stuff? You should. She’s my favorite storyteller out there.) Her friend Cara Gabriel’s advice struck such a chord with me:

Trust the power of your own desire to be creative, trust the power of your own will. Finally, know that motherhood, especially the earliest years, can be an excruciatingly lonely thing. If you can’t find time to write, find time to read. It will help you feel less alone.

I didn’t necessarily feel alone – if anything, I needed more time to myself – but if you can’t find time to write, find time to read? YES. It felt like ages since I’d read anything other than Facebook or Twitter on my phone (and I say this as someone who was trying to find time and inspiration to write things that other people might read on their phones). I missed magazines, I missed books. I missed stories that I could lose myself in. I needed creative inspiration.

So, in search of a muse, I’ve dived into media of all sorts. Here are a few of my favorites from the past few months.

Books:

  • The Royal We. I’ve already written about this in a few past posts, but this was a great novel to jump back into actual books with. Yes, it’s Kate Middleton fan fiction, and yes, it’s light reading. But it’s well written and entertaining, and that’s all I needed (though the lightly veiled Duchess of Cambridge references were much appreciated, too).
  • Bird by Bird. A standard of many writers’ bookshelves, this memoir/writing manual from Anne Lamott gives me a boost every time I read it. As she says, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”
  • Big Magic. Okay, so I haven’t actually started this one yet. But I just know it’s gonna be great. It’s the newest book from Elizabeth Gilbert – the Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame – and it’s all about tapping into your creativity and getting unblocked and moving past your fear and perfectionism to just do. BINGO.

TV:

  • Catastrophe. We are suckers for smart British TV, and this is some smart British TV. Profane, but a good, smart story about actual adults. You’ll recognize Maggie from Extras as one of the supporting castmembers. Bonus: it’s only six half-hour episodes, so you can literally binge-watch this in a single night. Also, it’s free with Amazon Prime. (That’s right, Prime is good for more than two-day shipping on the giant box of diapers. More on that, below.)
  • Mad Men. Yes, Mad Men, again. Hey, it’s a somewhat heavy show, with a lot of hour-long episodes. I’m finally at the start of season six, but I’ve taken a little breather to spend some quality time with the other entries on the list. Still, the show blows me away. I’ll finish it…sometime.
  • The Wire. We went back and started our most favorite show of all time over again. I haven’t rewatched it quite as faithfully as B this time around, but knowing how everything ends, it’s pretty amazing seeing the Easter eggs that David Simon sprinkled through the earlier seasons. And McNulty and Bunk’s best-ever scene remains an all-time classic (although NSFW!). You can get this one with Amazon Prime, too.

Podcasts:  

  • Happier. I understand that Gretchen Rubin didn’t start her podcast because I hadn’t had time to read her book on habits yet, but I’m glad that she did, because I was busy with The Royal We. I love that her podcast weaves together research she did on habits and for her Happiness Project books, that it features her sister (so you get some sisterly banter), that it has real world try-this-at-home elements, and that it’s only a half hour long. Her findings on what motivates us, what makes us happy (or drags us down), and how we form habits is fascinating to me. And it reminds me that writing (and reading and listening and watching) make me happy.
  • Matrimoney. This is a second podcast from Kelsey Wharton, half of the team behind The Girls Next Door, one of my favorite lifestyle podcasts. Kelsey, a writer, and her husband Chris, a college professor, talk in each episode a little about what’s going on in their life (with two small boys) and what’s going on with their money. We have somewhat different approaches to budgeting and saving, but it’s really interesting to hear a couple be so transparent about their finances. (Plus, I pretty much love everything Kelsey does, including her personal blog, Rising Shining.)
  • Edit Your Life. Speaking of Kelsey, she and her Girls Next Door co-host, Erica, turned me on to Asha and Christine of Edit Your Life. This podcast is all about simplifying your life, heavily accented on parenting. They both have older kids than ours so it’s not all directly applicable, but I like the overall vibe of this one — how to make space in your life for the stuff that really matters, and edit out what’s less important. Case in point: their whole episode on simplifying birthday parties. I appreciated that they approved of not doing kiddie goody bags, because I am anti-goody bag.
  • Magic Lessons. Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast spinoff from Big Magic. In each pair of episodes, Liz talks to a person whose creativity is stymied and gives them advice for getting it going, and then she talks to one of her impressive friends (John Hodgman, Brene Brown, Cheryl Strayed) to get their take on the dilemma. I left each episode with a bit of pep in my step, in addition to really just wanting Liz Gilbert to call me (we’re on a nickname basis after so much time together on the podcast). And now I feel like I really need to be reading and listening to Cheryl Strayed and Brene Brown, too.

Bonus, miscellaneous finds:

  • Amazon streaming music. Did you know that you basically get a free Pandora with your Prime subscription? Maybe everyone else has already been let in on this secret, but I just figured it out last month. So happy to have streaming music with no ads and unlimited skips and replays. I’ve had the Avett Brothers station on pretty much constant stream. I spend most of my time with my earbuds in listening to podcasts, but it’s nice to mix it up again with some good, mellow music.
  • Finding Joy. I read a lot of true-to-life, encouraging, warm “mom blogs.” But every time I read Finding Joy, I leave feeling lighter, and that it’s ok not to be perfect. Perfection is a constant struggle for me, even when I’ve long since acknowledged that I am far, FAR from perfect as a mom. But someone else giving you the ok on that means a lot, too – and the space not to be perfect leaves more room for doing other fun stuff that’s just for me (like writing!). I read one of her “Dear Mom” letters anytime I need a little pick-me-up. As in, “Dear Weary Mom Who Needs a Bit of Encouragement” and “Dear Mom on the Hard Days.”
  • Stitch Fix. I wrote last week about my first Fix. All of the pieces in the box weren’t perfect, but I’m excited about the prospect of trying it again next month. I’m following their suggestion to start a Pinterest board, which has gotten me thinking about what styles I really do like, and how I’d like to improve my wardrobe — and it’s led me to lots of other interesting, creative bloggers who have written about their own experiences with the styling service. I’m never going to be a fashion plate, but it’s pushing me to be visually creative in a way that I’m usually not, and I think that’s a good thing.

Taken together, these all have given me that much-needed creative boost. I’m also trying to carve out one or two nights a week to focus on my writing. It turns out that it’s tough to write if you don’t actually sit down and write. More about that process, and where it’s leading me, soon.

What’s inspiring you these days?