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Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Warm holiday wishes to you, whatever and however you celebrated!
As I mentioned in last month’s Armchair Chat, my family’s holiday season was truncated with a split down the middle: we started decorating and celebrating the week before Thanksgiving, Dan and I traveled without Selah the second week of December, then we had two-ish weeks of Christmas and New Year’s festivities (see also: no daycare). As I write this, I’m back in my office for a full day for the first time in nearly a month. It’s bittersweet: I had a hard time saying goodbye to Selah this morning after so much time with her, but I am also ready for a return to normalcy, routine, and not so many high highs and low lows.
The holidays have a way of bringing out the most extreme emotions, right? Excitement, anticipation, and general warm fuzziness . . . and also disappointment, frustration, spiraling, despair. I’ve felt every bit of it this holiday season, but I’m mining my memories for the most joyful moments (and these really were the majority) and choosing to savor those again and again.
Here’s more about what I learned, loved, and read in December.
What I Learned
- My goals (and my goal-setting process) should serve me. I chatted about all things related to goal setting, resolutions, and expectations on the Kindred Mom podcast this week, and I keep coming back to this idea shared by Emily Sue Allen. I loved her gracious reminder that my goals are not expectations I need to live up to. Rather, they are tools to help me do what I want to do and be who I want to be.
- Deep work is deeply satisfying. I’ll share more about this book below, but one of my key takeaways from Cal Newport’s Deep Work is this: “Most people [assume] that relaxation makes them happy. . . . [But] the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I am one of the many who thinks more rest and relaxation is what I need, but it turns out that we perceive our lives as rich and meaningful the more time we spend in a state of flow or deep work (with appropriate amounts of time to recharge, of course).
- I shouldn’t bake with Selah if I’m not willing to truly invite her into the process. I thought it would be so sweet and fun and memorable to bake Christmas cookies this year. But during the process I found myself increasingly frustrated by the amount of flour that ended up on the floor, the assertions of “I will do it myself!” (while wishing that I could do it myself), and the grabby hands that were touching everything all the time. I lost my cool and then instantly felt bad about it — hello, we’re supposed to be making good memories! But after taking a deep breath I realized that this is just how it is when we invite our kids into the process of making something. We have to relinquish some control and acknowledge that it will be messier and slower and far less perfect than if we had just done the thing ourselves.
What I Loved
- Kid-free travel. I feel embarrassingly lucky that Dan and I have been on two long, kid-free trips in the past two years. I know it will become infinitely harder to get away without the kids when there are two of them, so we have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of traveling together now.
- Brown paper packages tied up with string. It’s my favorite kind of gift wrap! And it’s been especially fun this year since Selah is on a Sound of Music kick — the classic song played in my head while I was wrapping Christmas presents this year.
- Watching Selah make connections. Speaking of The Sound of Music . . . the other day Selah was watching Beauty and the Beast, and she was scared of the Beast at the beginning of the movie (like always). I explained that the Beast is grumpy and kind of scary at first, but Belle helps him learn to become nice. Selah’s eyes lit up as she said, “Oh, like the grumpy dad and Maria!” I was equally impressed that she could make that kind of connection and horrified that she had picked up on this movie trope. I quickly explained that she should never make it her mission to fix a grumpy man, even if it makes for an interesting movie. We’ll get there.
- Solidifying our Christmas traditions. I’m sure they will continue to evolve over time, but I feel like this is the first year Dan and I have been really intentional about starting some traditions with Selah. She loved leaving cookies for Santa, seeing the Christmas lights around town, and watching a Christmas movie while drink hot chocolate (extra marshmallows, obviously).
What I Read
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport: I don’t say this lightly: this book is life-changing. I tend to think and work this way naturally, but more often than not I let distraction (phone, social media, etc.) hijack my time. I loved Newport’s assertion (based on science) that willpower and concentration are skills to be developed (much like muscles that need to be worked and also get tired out), not merely habits we can choose to do or not to do. Not only did he thoroughly convince me of the value of deep work, but he laid out simple (though, not easy) strategies for making deep work a reality in my life. I read this book at exactly the perfect time, as I have a big creative project coming down the line before baby boy is born, and I will need to spend more time than ever in a state of deep work. My only complaint about this book is the same one I often have of books int his genre: while this one was more realistic than others I’ve read, very few examples involved women and/or mothers, and just a few examples involved fathers — and there was no acknowledgment of the mental load women often bear, which I would argue is a huge barrier to deep work that most men just don’t face. Overall, though, this book was super motivating and surprisingly pragmatic. 5 stars.
- Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan: I didn’t exactly resist reading this book, I just didn’t think I desired to. I had heard some mixed reviews, and the more negative ones basically said, “The book is simply story after story of how rich these people are.” Yes, kind of. I can see why that would annoy some readers, but honestly, I found those parts so freaking funny and delightful because this crazy rich lifestyle is worlds away from my own experience. I loved the moments that captured the tension between mega-money and the cultural frugality/social norms surrounding that money. I was also surprised by how deeply some of the storylines were developed, even as the book overall had a lighthearted, slightly soapy feel. A million times better than the movie and totally worth the read. 4 stars.
- How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry: Another adorable, fun, lighthearted-but-surprisingly-well-developed vacation read. I’m tempted to round this down to 3.5 stars because literally every story line ended happily, but I did come to this book looking for a feel-good experience, so I can’t be too mad about that. I was surprised by the depth of the characters in this book, especially how palpable the presence of the main character’s father is throughout the whole story, even though he has already passed away when the book opens. 4 stars.
- Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner. I had a chance to learn from Lauren Winner at a writing conference I attended a few months ago, and after hearing her talk for just five minutes, I knew I needed to read everything she had ever written. I believe this is her first memoir, and it was solidly good. I appreciated the craft of her writing more than I enjoyed the content, but it’s clear even from this first book that she is a master storyteller. 3.5 stars.
- Vox by Christina Dalcher: A slightly forgettable but unputdownable book, and a perfect one to start with on vacation. The premise is fascinating: women in the US are only allowed to speak 100 words a day, and if they exceed this maximum, they will receive a series of increasingly painful shocks via a counter bracelet (really, more like a shackle). There’s a deeper and more insidious story line about what it would mean to permanently take away someone’s language abilities, the implications of not being able to communicate, and what might happen as the next generation of girls grows up — the ones who have never known life without these language quotas. My main complaints with this one were the pacing (way too much happened in the final 20 pages) and the too-neat ending. Definitely worth reading if you liked The Handmaid’s Tale. 3.5 stars.
- The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller: Another sweet and slightly fluffy book about a big-city girl who leaves her life to work for a charming small business in a charming small town. I didn’t like or connect with the main character until the very end of the book, but I did appreciate the transformation she went through. Much of this story takes place in the winter, so between the coziness of the setting (an inn in Vermont) and the descriptions of baked goods, it was a perfect read for Christmas week. 3.5 stars.
- Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin: The main character’s daughter is involved in a political sex scandal similar to that of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and this book takes a humorous and slightly ever-so-slightly sarcastic approach to exploring the fallout, particularly among the females involved. This author also wrote The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, which I absolutely adored. This book was super different and decidedly less charming, and it reminded me less of A.J. Fikry and more of Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Zany, quirky characters; interesting changes in format and narrative structure throughout the book. Ultimately, I just didn’t find the characters likeable enough to enjoy this book. 3 stars.
- An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green: I DNFed this book about 40 pages in. The premise was sort of interesting — mysterious identical sculptures show up all over the world overnight. The main character, April May (I was annoyed by her name right off the bat), discovers one of the sculptures in New York City and posts a video about it on YouTube. The video goes viral and she has to deal with the implications of new-found fame in the midst of a super-mysterious situation. I’m not sure if it was the writing style or the main character’s voice (or both) that bothered me, but I just couldn’t do it. She is a 23-year-old who speaks and acts like a young teenager, and even though this book is meant for adults, it read like mediocre YA. No rating because I didn’t finish.
What I Clicked
- “I suppose it doesn’t matter how good, how attentive, how wise, how prepared Mary was. It doesn’t matter how she feels or what she’s afraid of or what she questions because being in the hands of a God who catches the helpless and drags them off in his net is a done deal.” —A Confession in Three Parts by Callie Feyen
- “The challenge of committing to the page is that writing requires time, gluts of time to hear nothing but your own words, to staff your chair as an independent agent and not a singular source of need. A lot of the time the mental load wins and dishes it is. But other times the writing in my head demands substance—there’s no saying no—and so I allow myself space on the page.” —The Mental Load: Honoring Your Story Over Your To-Do List by Felicia Rose Chavez
What I Wrote
I’d love to hear from you! What have you been learning, loving, or reading lately?