faith, family

Erin’s First Three Months of Ethical Shopping (and a list of other [some hilarious] experiments you may or may not want to try)

Ethical Shopping Experiment:  The First Three Months.

Our family’s foray into ethical shopping came about as most things do: through friends of friends who gave us just enough spark to dive in the deep end. Ben and I were part of a team launching a new nonprofit, which is how we were introduced to the names behind Parative. (I had met Carolyn once before when she expertly cut my hair a year or so before.) We were immediately intrigued. Per usual when I meet someone with a mutual interest, I monopolized their time at the launch party, asking them all sorts of questions about ethical shopping and how it was working out for them. I am impulsive and spontaneous, which, depending on the circumstance, can be both a blessing and a curse. I’ve done (and written about) lots of other experiments: multiple Whole30s. An ill-advised colon cleanse. Two bouts of vegetarianism. Slowly chipping away at one more item that we only buy organic after watching those horrific food documentaries. So, mostly experiments dealing with food. And mostly ones that, I hope, make me feel good or benefit my health. We want to know what’s in the meat. As much as we can, we want to eat our food with a clean conscience.

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Deciding to purchase only clothing that is ethically sourced or secondhand was both exciting (another challenge! And one I can impose upon my whole family!) and daunting (what about when I feel the need??). The Need is what I refer to whenever I enter an Anthropologie or a TJMaxx. I know, the two aren’t exactly synonymous, but I love them both equally. I never really need anything inside of either store, but I always walk out with a candle or shirt or (God help me) a piece of pottery.

Here are a couple of takeaways after immersing ourselves in three months of ethical shopping.

Success #1: God always provides, and sometimes with hyperbole.

My sister recently moved to Costa Rica and unloaded her entire wardrobe on me. I can’t wear all of it, but there are heaps of items I love, and receiving an entire secondhand wardrobe means I basically doubled my clothing. (Small downside: I’ve aspired–experiment alert–to cultivate a capsule wardrobe, and doubling my closet isn’t helping any.)

Success #2: I made my first ethical clothing purchase. In bulk.

My English department (I’m a high school teacher) put me and a coworker in charge of designing and ordering department shirts this year. In no way do I want to push my experiment on anyone else, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to at least ask if my peers were interested in buying an ethically sourced shirt over any other shirt, even if it meant spending more money. We put it to a vote, and an ethically sourced shirt won. (Moral: English teachers are awesome.)

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Visual evidence to back up my claim that English teachers are awesome.

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Success #3: We survived Christmas.

I envy Mary.  When Jesus finally came, she needn’t fret about where his swaddled clothes came from.  Everything, I imagine, was local, everything homemade.  That’s not the case here.  When our own Christmas came, my husband and I had to think past our normal gift exchange. Usually it involves something experiential–a climbing gym membership or a massage, and always it involves a couple of items from Gap that also double as workwear. We had to get creative. We took getting creative with our gifting literally. I got my husband a weekend away at a Young Adult writer’s retreat at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee, TN; he purchased art supplies for me.

My husband is a beautiful writer–I fell in love with his long-distance letters to me long before I really fell for him–and he’s been working on and long dreamed of writing a book of his own. The weekend, he said, was perfect. The hosts, two published young adult authors, one we count as a long-lost friend from our Nashville days, were personable, encouraging, and relaxed. He came back from the conference inspired, refreshed, and energized, ready to get serious about writing. A dream awakened. It was and is beautiful to witness.

While he was gone, I cleared out our guest room closet, put the desk made by my great-grandpa Otis in it with a few writing accoutrements, and declared it Ben’s Writing Closet. It’s awesome.

I thought about the painting supplies for about six days before taking a crack at them. When we lived in Nashville and were first married, creative writing and painting were just part of our lives, as natural as binge-watching “30 Rock” became to me once it aired (Tina Fey as Liz Lemon as Princess Leia?  Fuhgettaboutit). When I started grad school and we moved to Cincinnati in 2006, the painting shut down altogether. I loved to paint, but the more the years ticked away, the less it seemed likely it would ever happen again. It seemed childish, a thing of the past.

But I cracked open that first canvas, had a picture in my head of what I wanted to paint, and went for it. I fell in love. It became a nightly endeavor, an obsession. Ever the Google Calendar evangelist, I created a separate shared calendar called “Create” so we can make a record of every night we spend at least some time writing or painting, even if it’s a puny twenty minutes. It’s exciting to add yet another notch in that belt. It’s awakened something new that feels urgent and important for us. And it’s so much better than khakis or flannel!

Even more amazing, we’re realizing the baloney that is the idea that there’s just not enough time to do something. There’s always time. We’re learning to say no to the right things, even things we love like re-binge-watching “30 Rock” for the fourth time because we need humor in our winters. We’re still having quality family time (we paint and write after the boys go to bed), haven’t slacked one bit on our schoolwork (if anything, we’re more efficient at work so we can “play” at home), and we’re finding it’s life giving. God provides.

We’ll take creation over clothing any day, any gift.

Success #4: The mall just isn’t that appealing right now.

I’ve never been a mall lover. I get dizzy easily and mall-type crowds make me feel anxious. But. There are those times I just want to buy, you know? And Gap has been my go-to place for cheap, stylish, functional clothing for FOREVER. I can even remember those first few Gap items my parents bought for me when we visited the Gap outlet in Hebron, KY, for the first time in the late ‘80s. Have mercy.

Like Bill Murray in What About Bob?, I’m taking baby steps in this experiment. When Ben and I went to kill time at the mall during Christmas season, I thought we might be playing with fire, like when I tell people I’m gluten-free BUT THERE’S A FUNFETTI CUPCAKE STARING AT ME on the counter. The amazing thing? We felt ho-hum in our desire to go into any store. I geek out over Christmas decor, so I love the overdone lights and bling. But I wasn’t tempted to buy a thing. Plus it was strange for me to think first about the hands that made all of the clothing–and there’s a lot of clothing–in each of the store windows. We want to know what’s in the meat.

It feels weird to flip the switch from somewhat-aware-but-still-part-of-the-system consumer to but-not-at-the-expense-of-others consumer.  It’s becoming less strange as time goes on.

This post originally appeared on The Parative Project’s blog. You should check out their site.

friends, MS

She Rides With MS 2016: Oxford Edition

A recap of our Bike MS: Oxford ride, as told through photographs from the weekend.

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Team PsalMS, from left to right: Meghan O., Christy, Gail, Erin, Ben, Emily, Katie, Meghan M. and Jill.

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Nothing builds team unity like an official jersey. This year, Team PsalMS went big on the jersey front with a little help from one of our seven new members, Christy Daniel, who got us the hook-up for some sweet Le Col unis (at a discount, no less!). As evidenced by the team picture above, taken before our Saturday ride (when, collectively, the nine of us rode 625 miles), we also went big on the socks front. In fact, the nine of us heard no combination of two words more frequently on the rolling stretches of open road around Oxford, Ohio, two weekends ago than these: “Nice socks!”

The Ohio Valley MS chapter moved its ride from Cincinnati to Oxford this year. That was part of the reason we were able to recruit seven new members to ride with us; seven of the eight ladies pictured above are Miami University alums. That meant, when we weren’t riding, we could be chowing down on a Szczerbiak bagel from Bagel & Deli, or revisiting the old haunts of Limelight and Hooterville, or partaking of (numerous) late night Skyline Chili Cheese Sandwiches for those of us who no longer live in the fair state of Ohio and thus can only eat Skyline from a can (a deeply inferior chili experience). The bike routes were prettier and more scenic — hillier too, though that made for some exhilarating downhills (fasted speed: 39 mph) as rewards for the difficult climbs.

The other opportunity afforded by our jerseys were many opportunities to explain why our name is Team PsalMS. Though not as comical or witty as, say, our favorite fellow team, the Handlebars (from its team page: “We believe that facial hair and spandex will have a direct effect on the lives of our friends living with MS”), or others like Cobra Kai (with the tagline, “Sweep the leg MS!”), our name has significance behind it which led to some meaningful conversations on the road. Bicycling is a more social sport than running. It’s better suited for conversation and leisurely rest stops (unless, like Christy and Katie, our two century riders, you’re out for speed and distance). It was easy to strike up a conversation among our team, given how far back many of those friendships go. But we were pleasantly surprised how easy it was to talk to anyone, anywhere, during any part of the weekend. The camaraderie we felt, even with strangers, was genuine.

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The official jersey.

Just so you can fully appreciate how awesome our jersey is, here’s a close up. Several team members were not even aware, until someone pointed it out on Sunday, that the outline of Ohio is a bike chain. That was Christy’s idea.

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Bike selfie

Bike selfie. As this was taken before the ride began, it was totally safe.

Our intent was to ride 50 miles on Saturday and 25 miles on Sunday, a modest upgrade from our 50 miles last year. But the day was so pleasant, and the miles passed so quickly, that we and Meghan Orr opted on the fly for the 75 mile route. While we trained a wee bit more for this Bike MS ride than we did last year’s (when, we confess, our training consisted entirely of five mile round trips to the pool and a steady stream of Oreos), our longest training ride was a Loveland bike trail-flat 35 miles. So 75 was a bit outside our comfort zone.

And yet, like our half-marathons, the miles pass faster during the actual race. The 75-mile route took us into the farmlands of Indiana; at one point, we actually passed a farmer carrying a bucket of slop across the road to a feeding trough for his pigs. At other points it felt as though we were biking through a corn tunnel. (Never has endless corn looked so wonderful as when it buffeted us from the mild headwinds during the last twenty miles.)

We crossed the finish line a little after 3:00, so we didn’t set any records for speed. (Nor did we beat most of the century riders.) But the feeling of accomplishment and the peculiar pleasure that comes from exhausting physical exertion were all we felt when we pulled back into Oxford (West Spring Street like our Champs-Élysées) to the perfect ending: a cheering section.

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On the road deux

A slightly less safe bike selfie from the Sunday route.

Riding with people we have the honor of calling friends was incredibly special to me (Erin). All of us got to have quality time with each other while, you know, doing some of the hardest exercise of our lives. (The phrase “We can do hard things” seemed a constant ticker tape scrolling in my mind.) I cherished the one-on-one conversations I had on the road–it struck me how much more enjoyable it was to be doing something hard and to be catching up with one another, talking about things utterly ordinary and extremely profound. Those I didn’t get to talk to on the road, I relaxed with after the ride over a beer and the surprisingly pleasing combination of potato chips dipped into coleslaw. (Seriously. Try it.)

I’m a chronic replayer of time, and this weekend proved no different. Even still, I keep playing the “two weeks ago, we’d be checking into the dorm” or “eating lunch at the 28 mile marker” or “doing a spontaneous yoga pose in front of Hooterville” or “hanging out at the tattoo parlor.” And then wish it was two weeks ago.

I am so proud of my team. I am also very grateful that they were part of the audience when I briefly told my story in front of the 551 riders Saturday night. The MS Society asked me earlier in the week if I’d consider, and it didn’t take me long to say yes. But it’s one thing to agree to something and another thing to stand nervously in front of hundreds of people. I talked about when and how I was diagnosed with MS, what the last year and a half has been like, and why I ride. I emphasized how the need for fundraising clicked with me this year since my first medicine wasn’t working but my new one is. Without fundraising and research, which led to my new medicine, my future seems something I don’t want to imagine.

I left the stage unsure about what I’d said — if it made sense, if it was what the MS Society wanted, if it was right at all. Ben and my teammates all reassured me. The rest of the weekend, so many people came to give me a hug or a word of encouragement, and moved me to my core.

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Biking the Covered Bridges of Butler County. 

As of Saturday night, when Steve Niemann, the Teams Development Manager at the Ohio Valley Chapter, announced the top ten fundraising teams (fundraising continues through September 25th), we were in tenth place out of over fifty teams, even though many teams had significantly more members than we did. At one point, Erin was in the top five of fundraisers overall. This is a testament to the extreme generosity of our friends and family, as well as the fundraising efforts of our teammates. We cannot say enough how humbled we are by everyone’s generosity toward us.

Battling MS can be such an amorphous thing — how do you attack something that doesn’t have a cure, that seems to move invisibly, that appears to lie dormant for long stretches of time before flaring up in spectacular and terrifying fashion? What we love about Bike MS is that it gives us something tangible to do: Ride a bicycle! For a long time! Until our butt hurts like nobody’s business! That’s easy, compared to the larger battle at hand. As Erin put it in her speech, “I hate having MS, but I love riding with MS.” We appreciate everyone who is on this journey with us.

Uncategorized

Our History With Donald Trump

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The letter above was mailed to members of the Summer’s Best Two Weeks 2003 kitchen crew shortly after it was written on January 14, 2004. Why we sent eighteen teenagers a letter with a giant picture of Donald Trump on it probably needs some explanation in light of recent events.

We’ve told the story before of how we met. (Part One here; Part Four, the first time Donald Trump appeared on this blog, and an explanation of how Ben and a crew of teenage boys parlayed Trump money into winning the affections of Erin and high school girls, here. ) Donald Trump played some small part in that story. It all began when Ben’s grandmother, for unfathomable reasons, gave him Trump: The Game as a Christmas present. It is a terrible game. Poorly designed. Visually unappealing. Worse than a poor man’s Monopoly, because a poor man’s Monopoly would at least have some semblance of gameplay, purpose and enjoyment. It was, like many (if not all) things Trump, a vanity project.

Because Ben brought that board game with him to summer camp in July 2003 (he was moving out of his apartment and it ended up in the trunk), Trump: The Game informed the milieu of the Summer’s Best kitchen in unexpected ways. Trump Money became the currency of lovelines (notes passed between the sexes, scrawled on the back of the paper thin play money). Trump: The Game’s slogan — “It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you win!” — infiltrated our language and evolved into amusing inside jokes (“It’s not whether you clean the dishes or not, but whether Tim does them instead,” etc.) Trump’s hair provided fodder for both jokes and deep philosophical ponderings.

It’s hard, now, not to revise that collective memory in light of Trump’s presidential run. When we found the letter pictured above (Trump looking slightly less orange), we had to laugh. (Trump marrying us?) But that laughter was also tinged with unease. How did a reality TV star full of braggadocio — one so comical and buffoonish as to amuse two lovestruck twentysomethings and countless teenagers thirteen summers ago — become the presumptive nominee of one of our two major political parties? When Trump disparages a man born in Indiana for his Mexican heritage and implies that his ethnicity disqualifies him from ruling fairly on the Trump University trial (Speaker Paul Ryan called the remarks a “textbook definition of a racist comment,” though he still supports him), or when his first response to the worst mass shooting in American history is to tweet “appreciate the congrats on being right about radical Islamic terrorism,” as though he is and must always be the warped prism through which all national or geopolitical events are refracted, who is the joke on? (Can we even call it a joke?)

In short, we prefer The Donald of 2003 over The Donald of 2016. He will remain, in our hearts, the man who played a bit role in our courtship; the man whose bluster and imperiousness supplied endless material for ironic teenage banter; the man, in short, who was a footnote worthy of laughter, and nothing more.

Rest in peace, The Donald of 2003.

friends, MS

She Rides With MS

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When we picked up our race packets for the 50-mile Bike MS ride, a very mannered young man, probably no more than twelve, was there to greet us. “What name is the registration under?” he asked. “Erin Vore,” Erin said. The boy scrolled through the list, located Erin’s name, and then said, “Erin Vore! It’s Erin Vore everyone!” At this, everyone — which was three other people working the table — promptly came over and shook Erin’s hand. “You were one of our top fundraisers!” the director, a man by the name of Steve, said. Another man, just a volunteer, was content simply to shake Erin’s hand. “You’re an all-star,” he said. The twelve-year-old, who may have actually been a forty-year-old trapped in a pre-teen’s body, said things like, “You did an exemplary job fundraising,” and kept checking items off a list to give to us: a standard-issue Bike MS t-shirt; a Bike MS windbreaker; a Top Banana riding jersey (appropriately colored yellow), given to those who raise at least $1200. (It speaks to the generosity of our friends that Erin raised nearly $2800.)

“How many years have you been riding?” Steve asked.

“Well, this is my first,” Erin said. “I was diagnosed last December, and this was one of the first things we both agreed we wanted to do.”

“You have MS too!” Steve said.

“That means you get an ‘I Ride with MS’ jersey,” the twelve-year-old said, promptly taking one off the table. Erin was now holding four articles of clothing.

We felt like celebrities. And that, admittedly, is a nice feeling to have, and one unlike most of the feelings we’ve had since Erin’s diagnosis eight months ago. That feeling helped compensate for the fact that we had done absolutely no — as in zero — training for our fifty miles leading up to race day.

But you can get a lot of mileage off the generosity and support of your friends — both those who supported us (financially and otherwise) before the race, and those who showed up at the UDF on the corner of Remington and Loveland-Madeira … the only people we saw, anywhere on the route, who comprised a cheering section for anyone on a bicycle.

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset The people not in bike jerseys are definitely faking how much fun it                                       appears to be watching a bike race.

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There were a few people on the ride who also had “I Ride With MS” jerseys, but the majority of riders were people who knew someone with MS; just wanted to support the cause; or were simply happy to raise at least $300 to take a spin from Bellevue, Kentucky, up to Camp Kern in Ohio.

What got us through the last fifteen miles — besides low gears and a lot of Powerade — was the knowledge that we have great friends and supportive family; that we are not embarking on the journey of life with MS alone; and that there were other riders out there with us — not just those whizzing (or plodding) by the cornfields of Lebanon, but also those like our friend Katie, who did the Denver MS ride, and others all around the country. One rider had a “We Bike The U.S. For MS” jersey full of signatures. His body was a testament to the names of those with the disease, his presence a reminder that while things like MS can isolate and frighten us, they can also be turned outward, pointing us toward community, interdependence, and hope. So we ride on.
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UPDATE!: We have somehow graced the front page of the Ohio Valley Bike MS recap. As our friend (and Bike MS PR person/live-tweeter) Andrew Cashmere would say, “Boom.”

friends, marriage, things to love about Ohio

Scenes From An Ohio Road Trip

Moments after dropping Sam and Leo off with Erin’s parents, as we pulled out of the neighborhood and considered that we would now have the next twenty-eight hours without kids, Ben turned to Erin and said, “To quote Dr. Leo Marvin in What About Bob?: Free.”

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LEG 1: CINCINNATI TO YELLOW SPRINGS (VIA KETTERING)

“So how do you pronounce his name?” Erin asked, holding Ben’s copy of Between the World and Me.

“It’s Tah-Nuh-HA-see Coates. The ‘Hi’ sounds like a ‘Ha,'” Ben said. “Wait, are you going to read my book before I do?”

“Sure. You’re driving.”

“But I get to read it tonight when we get to the hotel.”

“No. Because I’ll be reading it.”

“But it’s my book. I just bought it.”

“And I’m reading it.”

“This is the, what — fourth book you’ve stolen from me?”

“Oh, that’s not true. Name them.”

“Meghan Daum’s book.”

“OK, that’s one.”

The Dark Path.”

“Two.”

“Oh, The Lifeboat, last summer.”

“No, you stole that from me.”

We passed the newly reconstructed “Touchdown Jesus” off I-75. It was not looking so touchdowny anymore.

“I can’t remember the last visitation I went to,” Erin said.

“I think mine was my Uncle Bud,” Ben said. “I still remember how he looked in the coffin. It was him, but it wasn’t, you know?”

“Where did our summer go? And why did we each bring four books? By the time we get to the hotel it’ll be at least ten o’clock.”

“And there’ll be HGTV.”

“Right. Who were we kidding?”

There was construction outside Dayton and we missed our exit. When we arrived at the funeral home, our friend Scott was there to greet us. Meghan, his wife, was feeding their five-month-old. Life goes on even in tragedy.

More of our friends arrived, and each new arrival made Meghan smile and then cry. We stood around in a circle, witnesses to a passing.

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“We’re going to get in late, aren’t we?” Erin said back in the car. “Also, I’m so hungry I’m going to start gnawing on the upholstery.”

“It’s all right,” Ben said. “It’s a road trip. We’ll get there before ‘Property Brothers.'”

“But where are we going to eat?”

“Anywhere. You pick.”

“Have you ever been to Yellow Springs?”

“No. Let’s do it. Tell me where to go.”

“Take this exit. It’s twelve miles on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road.”

As we drove, Erin mentioned that her last meal in Yellow Springs had been with an old boyfriend, but that it was a very nice meal.

“So you’re saying I need to prove myself tonight?” Ben responded. “On our anniversary dinner?”

“I’m saying this is a chance for me to redeem my Yellow Springs experience.”

The main drag in Yellow Springs is Xenia Avenue, and assorted hipsters and hippies occupied the streets as we drove through. It seemed as though everyone was walking a dog.

We parked and walked around before stopping in the Winds Cafe. We looked at a sample menu while the maître d’ waited. “Plenty of tables tonight,” he said.

“I get worried when they don’t list the prices,” Erin whispered.

“Oh, let me get you a real menu!” the maÎtre d’ said.

We considered. It was getting late, and a meal there would taken at least an hour, putting us in Mansfield at close to eleven.

“Let’s do it,” Erin finally said.

“Oh good!” The maÎtre d’ snapped to action, getting us two more menus before realizing we already had two. He sat us by the window.

“Are you going to be Whole30 tonight?” Erin asked as we looked over the menu.

Ben hemmed and hawed. It was day twenty-one of a very loose Whole30.

“Maybe. Probably. Maybe.”

“C’mon,” Erin said. “Live a little.” She reminded him of the numerous lapses he had already suffered over the past three weeks. “But if you tempt me when I do mine,” she added, drawing a line across her throat.

The waiter arrived. We ordered the Provençal Whole Branzini. Ben ordered a Rhinegeist on tap.

“Good for you,” Erin said. “Let’s document this.”

She took a picture and, before uploading it to Instagram, pondered a good hashtag before settling on “#Neurohiogetaway.”

When the fish arrived, it was the whole Branzini — head and eyes and all.

“We have to eat the cheek meat,” Erin said. “You know the Amy Tan essay, right? ‘Fish Cheeks’?”

“I do not.”

“The best meat is in the cheeks. Let’s save it for last.”

A man walked by the window and saw our meal. He stopped, pointed at the fish, then at us, grinning like an idiot. We smiled and waved. He kept pointing and grinning.

“Yes, it’s a fish,” Ben said.

He nodded and finally kept walking.

While we celebrated our anniversary meal (a week early), the ladies two tables over were sharing their divorce stories. We were the only ones in the room, so their conversation filtered over to us easily. We talked so we wouldn’t feel like eavesdroppers.

“Does this cleanse the ex palate?” Ben asked. “Have we redeemed Yellow Springs for you?”

“Actually, I think this was the same restaurant,” Erin said. “But it was a different name then.”

“Well, we made the right choice then.”

It was nine when we finished. The Branzini was all spindly bone and head (minus the cheeks) when the waiter took it. We ordered decafs to go. The waiter returned with two decafs in mugs. “We didn’t have any travel cups left, but I figured you still wanted these,” he said.

The coffee was tepid. “We give our kids warmer baths than this,” Erin said.

The waiter returned and offered to brew us a new pot. We declined, and he took it off the check.

We left the restaurant as dusk was settling. “That was the kind of meal that’s really good but still leaves you hungry,” Ben said. We had Whole30-friendly banana chips and cashews in the car; most would be gone over the next two hours. “Mansfield or bust,” Erin said, and we were off.

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LEG 2: YELLOW SPRINGS TO MANSFIELD

We arrived at the hotel at 11:37. A man came out of his room as we tried to get our key to work. “You brought a box fan to a hotel!” he said. “Who brings a box fan to a hotel?”

“Apparently we do,” Erin said. We exchanged looks. Drunk? Serial killer?

He was approaching us as if our arrival was exactly what he’d been waiting for. “Apparently! I can’t get over that. What do you need a fan for?” He was closing on us.

“We like the white noise,” Erin said. The key was still not working. The moment was slowly turning into that movie scene when the good guy fumbles with the car keys as a deranged killer pursues.

“There’s an app for that!” he said. He was ten feet away.

The door opened. We were in. “Oh, really?” Erin said, sliding in and beginning to shut the door.

“Yeah!” he said, finally at our door. It was still open, and he was standing right in front of it. “Like three of them!”

“Well, we’ll have to check that out,” Erin said.

“You do that! Nice rooms, huh?”

“Very nice!” Erin said. “Good night!” She closed the door.

“Mansfield’s … friendly,” she said, recovering herself.

“But not lethal!” Ben said.

We found HGTV. Jonathan was giving Shannon and Darl the bad news that there was asbestos in the walls of their fixer-upper. Soon he would tell them they needed to get rid of a beloved clawfoot bathtub as well. Also that the HVAC needed to be replaced. Neither Shannon nor Darl was thrilled to get this news.

“What’s his name?” Erin asked. “Darr?”

“I think it’s ‘Darl,'” Ben said. “Like in Faulkner.”

“Darl,” Erin said. “That’s unfortunate.”

“They’re so weird-looking.”

“Shannon and Darl?”

“No, what’s-their-faces.”

“Jonathan and Drew.”

“Yes, they are.”

After the show, Erin took out A Farewell To Arms.

“You’re going to start your summer reading now, at midnight, in Mansfield, Ohio?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, who am I kidding,” Erin said, throwing the book on the floor.

“Show the kids the clip where Bradley Cooper throws the book out the window,” Ben said. “That’ll be their favorite part of class discussion.”

“Noted,” Erin said. She turned off the lights. We slept terribly.

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LEG 3: MANSFIELD TO CLEVELAND

Erin punched in the address for the Cleveland Clinic as soon as we get in our car. Siri chirped back, “Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis,” as we pulled back onto I-71 North.

“Thanks, Siri,” Erin said. She mimicked Siri’s voice. “Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis, an auto-immune disease which occasionally causes you to go blind in your left eye.”

Ben chimed in. “Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis, which you still have and can only get worse by the time you arrive.”

“Starting route to Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis,” Erin said, “which just all around really sucks for you.”

We arrived at the Cleveland Clinic an hour before our appointment. The waiting room had a clean, sleek, professional appearance, its inhabitants the usual snapshot of humanity caught in medical limbo. Two boys who did not appear to have parents were sitting side-by-side playing on iPads. The only magazines available for browsing were Fortune and Bloomberg Businessweek, two of the least browsable magazines ever printed.

They ran a tight ship at the Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis. A nurse, Georgia, ran vitals on Erin and logged her medications, then asked her to complete a timed test that involved moving pegs in and out of a square wood block. She then took us back to the waiting room, but it was less than five minutes before Dr. Cohen himself came out to greet us. He was polite, efficient, calm and reassuring. He agreed with the diagnosis, and talked about the growing number of MS medications. “Overall, I think you’re doing incredibly well given everything I’ve seen today,” he said — which was worth the drive itself, just to hear those words.

In the waiting room, we scheduled our follow-up appointment for February. Because of concerns for privacy, each scheduler is separated by a partition, and the next in line must wait outside behind a glass door. Nevertheless, we could still hear the woman on the other side of the partition very clearly when she said, upon being asked how her day was going, “Fine, except for the open sore on my butt.”

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LEG 4: CLEVELAND TO MANSFIELD

We stopped for lunch at the Chipotle in Middleburg Heights. The line was out the door. We watched as two parents tried desperately to corral their kids into finishing their meals. Eventually the father simply picked up the younger boy, who looked to be Leo’s age, and carried him out like a sack of mulch, if the sack was also squirming and screaming bloody murder.

Despite this scene, we both commented that we really missed our boys.

Back on I-71, Ben asked, “Have you ever been to the Ohio State Reformatory before?”

“Are you asking if I’ve done prison time?” Erin responded.

“It’s where they shot Shawshank Redemption. Should we stop?”

“Sure. It’s a road trip.”

We pulled up to the now-defunct prison, the music from that famous tracking shot playing in our heads. “Will they have a bathroom?” Erin asked. “Oh, I think those are still in operation,” Ben replied. Inside we took the Shawshank tour. Red was our tour guide.

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LEG 5: MANSFIELD TO CINCINNATI

“Funny how you can drive seven hours to Missouri but you need a break from Cleveland to Cincinnati,” Erin said. We had traded places after gassing up outside Grove City.

“What are you implying, exactly?”

“That you don’t want me to finish my book,” Erin said, gesturing toward Between the World and Me.

My book, thank you,” Ben replied.

“This has been a strange trip,” Erin said. “We bookended an anniversary getaway with a visitation and a neurology appointment.”

“Then went to a prison,” Ben added.

It was raining when we made it back to Cincinnati. Everyone — Sam, Leo, Nana, Papa — were sitting peacefully on the couch when we arrived to pick them up. Either the scene had been staged for us to suggest the last twenty-eight hours had been an idyllic time on the homefront, or it was just another instance of grandparenting magic. “They were great,” Erin’s parents said. We found that hard to believe, but we were grateful.

The trip marked the end of summer for us. The beginning of the school year is like reaching the peak of a roller coaster, right before it makes its first stomach-twisting drop. Once the ride starts, there’s no getting off until June. In six months, we’ll make the trek back up I-71, by which point, hopefully, Erin will be stabilized on Copaxone, with no additional relapses; both of us will be settled into new teaching gigs at new schools; Sam will be, in small but significant ways, on his way to being more mature and ready for kindergarten next fall; and Leo will be doing what Leo does, which is generally regarding everything around him with the two-year-old amazement of seeing it all for the first time. Until then, we await the start of another school year with both excitement and unease, anticipation and anxiety. And, of course, the hope none of us come down with open sores on our butt.

books, ReLit

ReLit: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Go West, young man.

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Part of our summer vacation was spent on the banks of the Huzzah (pronounced “HOO-zah”) River in Steelville, Missouri, site of many a Beers family camping expedition back in the day. We waded. We fished. We threw rocks. We caught tadpoles. Erin caught a softshell turtle. If none of this sounds exotic to you, you are not a five-year-old boy.

One hundred fifty miles north of Steelville is Hannibal, Missouri — hometown to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A much larger river runs past Hannibal: the Mississippi. Twain said of that river that it was like a book with “a new story to tell every day.” His most famous book, set on that very river, is of course Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And as I (Ben) sat on the banks of the Huzzah in June, beholding its presence and witness to its slow, steady glide through time, I remembered a line Huck says about there being “no home like a raft,” because “other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

No book was harder for me to teach this year than Huck Finn. No book seemed to have changed so much since I last read it twenty years ago. I do not know if I taught it well. If success is measured by how much students “like” a book, then (with one or two exceptions) I did not. But I wondered, as I stumbled through teaching it, how much Huck Finn is a book that — despite its permanent fixture in the American canon (“all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Ernest Hemingway) — really wants to be liked. Like its author, Huck Finn is an ornery, subversive beast, punching up and down. It’s also really funny, although my students seriously questioned the integrity of my sense of humor. Nonetheless, let’s begin.

What You Probably Remember About Huck Finn From High School: A young boy and a black man on a river. And that Tom Sawyer is in it. Tom and Huck’s stories overlap, but it’s important to keep them separate as well. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (written first, nine years earlier) is the one where Tom and Huck discover the treasure in the cave. It’s also the one when Tom whitewashes the fence (or, more accurately, bribes other kids to paint it for him) and appears at his own funeral. He shows up early in Huck Finn to serve as a foil for Huck (Tom is the hopeless romantic; Huck is more pragmatic), then returns late in the novel to hijack the story, both in plot (he gets shot “rescuing” Jim) and theme (though we’d argue that this is intentional on Twain’s part, but no less problematic).

You might remember — especially if you hated English class and thought your teacher was a pedantic bore for insisting there was hidden symbolism (usually involving sex) behind everything — the delightful “Notice” that prefaces the novel, which we will include here in its entirety:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be executed; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

You may have read that and thought, “Mark Twain — my man!”, and assumed because your English teacher went on and on about what a satirical, troublemaking genius Mark Twain was, that said English teacher would, you know, take Twain at his word and not waste everyone’s time dwelling on motives and morals and plots and all that.

What a naive fool you were then.

You might remember, more than the actual plot of Huck Finn, all the controversy. Specifically that the n-word is used two hundred and nineteen times. Censorship has always swirled around Huck Finn; it most recently resurfaced in 2011 when the publisher NewSouth came out with an edition that replaced “nigger” with “slave.” One of the arguments NewSouth made was that this actually helped Huck Finn attain a broader readership, since squeamish school boards could theoretically substitute a version that would be less offensive. (As Toni Morrison said of such efforts, “It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”) Never mind that changing the words also changes the meaning, since meaning derives itself from language; that edition was largely ridiculed, notably by Larry Wilmore, back when he was the “Senior Black Correspondent” on “The Daily Show”:

Mark Twain put that word in for a reason … and [“slave” is] not even accurate. In the book, Jim is no longer a slave. He ran away. Twain’s point is he can’t run away from being a nigger.

Indeed, the word has different meanings — depending on who’s using it, how it’s being used, when it’s being used. Twain knew this; an astute reader knows this. For its boy adventure stylings and comical overtones, Huck Finn is anything but light. It demands an astute reader.

Finally, you might remember your teacher droning on about how Huck Finn is a splendid example of regionalism and dialect, how it captures in its language the time, place, and people of the Antebellum South, and how it turns ordinary speech into an elevated art form. You might also recall writing an essay at one in the morning about the symbolism of the Mississippi River and thinking it was pretty brilliant — how the river was life and change and freedom, man — until your shiftless, forever-making-excuses teacher took three months to grade it, giving it to you the day before school ended, at which point Mark Twain was dead to you and you were big time into the Predator movie franchise and having deep, philosophical arguments with Chuck Brainerd about who would win in an Aliens vs. Predator death match. If so, you were wrong. Aliens would crush Predator any day of the week and thrice on Sunday.
No contest.
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Let’s move on.

What We Got From Huck Finn The Second Time Around: A lot. For one, simple geography. It was lost on me the first time that Huck and Jim were floating down the Mississippi River — i.e., straight into the heart of the deep South. (They are aiming for the Ohio River, but miss the entrance on a foggy night when they get separated.) What they thought was the route to freedom was really a float trip into enemy territory. It was also, ironically, the same route Jim would’ve traveled had he been sold into slavery (in New Orleans).
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I also picked up more of the novel’s abiding skepticism toward formal education. Huck’s caretaker, Widow Douglas, is out to “sivilize” him — clean him up, get him an education, make him a proper boy. Huck wants nothing to do with this:
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The widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.

Huck is perpetually trying to escape: from Widow Douglas, his father, the authorities. Basically, almost every adult in the novel. Huck Finn is a picaresque, a meandering, often implausible story of a roguish hero set against the social order. One of the many disquieting things suggested by the ending, called by some the saddest happiest ending in all of literature (Huck lights out for the territories — i.e., Oklahoma, Indian country — with Tom but without Jim), is that Huck will never escape the corrupt social structures which any group of humans, gathered any place in the world, will inevitably build, riddled as they are with prejudice, violence, selfishness, cruelty, and all sort of conflicted morality. What use, Twain suggests, is being “sivilized” by a culture such as this? And yet, what other alternative is there?
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One of the ways the novel punches up is in its deeply skeptical stance on religion. When Huck meets his new friend Buck Grangerford in chapter 18, Buck takes him to church. Keep in mind that the Shepherdsons, the Grangerford’s bitter rivals, attend the same church:
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Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching — all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.
A sermon on “brotherly love,” delivered to two families who commend its power and then turn around and kill one another. When Huck finds Buck’s dead body after the feud, he tugs it ashore: “I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me.” Such is the fruit of religion for Huck. (Huck also turns his back on religion — indeed, on what he suspects to be his eternal salvation — in the book’s climactic moment when he rips up the note to Miss Watson that would reveal Jim’s whereabouts and reenslave him; “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” he says.)
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In college, my professor spent a lot of time stressing how the book laid bare our own racial prejudices. I, and many of my classmates, being enlightened and open-minded twenty-somethings, took umbrage to this. We’re not racists! we all argued. If anyone is, it’s this Twain guy! Isn’t Jim a minstrel stereotype himself? Too bad Twain wasn’t alive now in such a racially enlightened era. We’d teach him a thing or two about race!
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It’s all too easy to pat oneself on the back when reading literature from an earlier, less progressive era. And high school students love to do it. But a good English teacher should force them to deal with the text on its own terms — to read it with 21st century eyes but also ones aware of (and sympathetic to) the time and place from which it originated.
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Re-reading and teaching Huck Finn, I learned that you can fail a text (and your students) when you don’t give it room to breathe. I thought we needed to address the race question, because isn’t that what everyone does with Huck Finn? As a novice teacher, I was afraid of not meeting this issue head on, resulting in what I’m now sure were heavy-handed attempts to inject race into the conversation, such that it quickly became a conversation no one besides myself wanted to have. (This meme probably best captures what my students felt like during this stretch.)
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But during the seminar discussion day, when I was silent and the students talked, it was not race they wanted to discuss; it was Huck. Specifically, that he was just a kid, and that there was something in this novel that touched on childhood in a profound, unsettling way. Andrew Levy articulates this in Huck Finn’s America when he writes,
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There is a shimmer to Twain’s portrait of white childhood in the antebellum era. But there are also murders, suicidal ideation, child abuse, and a profound satire on standardized education, and the ambivalent ways American parents both protect their children from, and provide them uncritical access to, popular culture. Huck Finn is a book about the disconnection between our children’s inner lives and our ways of raising and teaching them — a disconnection so intimidating that, naturally, we placed this tribute to children’s alienation at the center of public school curricula.

Levy argues that race is not, in fact, the central theme of the novel (though he argues it’s still quite integral), but rather that childhood is. Like many modern readers, I read Huck Finn a long time ago and then my memory began to soften all its hard edges. I remembered it as a comical escapade of an unlikely friendship, an ode to a simple, adventurous, but ultimately “happy” childhood. (I suspect I’m not the only one who conflates Huck’s story with Tom’s, as if all childhood stories are alike.)
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I forgot, until rereading Huck Finn, just how unsafe and despairing (in chapter one Huck says bluntly, “I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead”) it is. Huck’s racist father Pap, one of literature’s most vile characters, beats him. Huck fakes his own death (by killing a pig and smearing its blood everywhere) to escape. Thirteen people die. One of them, Pap, floats by Huck on the river, though Huck doesn’t know it because Jim, in a gesture of mercy, spares him the truth until the very end. Not exactly Norman Rockwell stuff.
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Why We Think You Should Give Huck Finn A Reread: At its simplest, Huck Finn is the story of a boy who comes to see the worth in a man that the rest of society tells him is worthless. That’s a story that still resonates today.

“The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” Morrison said. This is another way of saying that returning to Huck Finn will both reassure and unsettle, both challenge and reward you. It will also make you laugh. (The Shakespearean word salad in chapter 21 is a highlight, especially if you’re an English teacher.)

Levy argues that “Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness” — and added, in an interview, that “we, as Americans, are too easily convinced that we are moving forward when sometimes we are moving in circles.” Rereading Huck Finn forced me to consider how far we’ve come since 1885 but also, sadly, how much we’re still stuck in the same place.

Finally, if for nothing else, rereading Huck Finn will remind you just how much since owes some debt to it. And it made me appreciate, again, one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:

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For Toni Morrison’s full introduction to “this amazing, troubling book,” see here.

faith, marriage, parenthood

Big Paws For Doing Big Things

When I (Erin) think of things I’m afraid of, I think of Big Things: America’s troublesome food system. Money crap. Racism and Bullying.  The fact that I’ve switched jobs twice in two years. How my kids will end up in therapy and resent me. When my Multiple Sclerosis will strike again. Why chin hairs keep growing and multiplying. Why I can’t get more than 20 likes on any single Instagram post (follow me! @erinvore). Whether or not I smell better when I use my husband’s deodorant.

Like I said, big things.

I’m also afraid of a blank page. I’ve always loved to write, always dreamed of writing Big Things. Like Pickles in Esther Averill’s The Fire Cat, one of my boys’ favorite books, I have Big Paws and am meant to do Big Things.

We are all Pickles.

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I’m just afraid my Big Things aren’t worth saying. I’ve spent so much time not writing the right things because I’m so worried I’m not writing the right things. It’s a terrible, vicious cycle.

But.

I just finished reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s fiercely good book of essays, Carry On, Warrior. GDM is one messed up lady. She admits freely, and without shame, how messed up she is: former longtime bulimic, boozer, drug-user, casual sex doer. Those rhyme. Kind of cute until you think about what all of those things mean.

She also knows, though, that those things, those dark spots — skeletons in the closet, things that can suck the life out of you because of fear and worry and shame (not to mention real, tangible consequences like pregnancy and disease) — are not her because she is made new in Christ. She is loved the heck out of by Jesus. In fact, He’s thrilled to call her daughter, to be in love with this messed up lady He’s created.

I had a more than a couple light bulbs go off while reading her memoir:

  1. I am a messed up lady too. I spend a lot of my time making sure people don’t know I am messed up or know that I USED to be messed up, but now I go to church and host small group and read my Bible almost every morning, and am doing the best I can with my two, crazy boys, and eat as cleanly as I can (except for wine and night-time snacks), and buy organic milk and eggs, and am quick to forgive, and exercise moderately, and take my medicine diligently, and try to send belated birthday cards because I almost always never remember special days on the actual day. But, like I said, I am messed up. I’ve done things — Big Things — I’m not proud of, and it got me thinking how much I really believe, like deep down believe, that I really am redeemed. I think my thought life often doesn’t match up with my out loud life. Out loud, I proclaim (such a religious verb) that I am reborn, a new creation, made new in Christ, but my insides still feel shame, sadness, regret. Melton says more than once that she thinks God basically digs her. On the one hand, really? Like, really digs you? Digs me? Isn’t that a little cocky? But I think she’s right. He made me and he digs me and it’s high time I start believing it, not just saying it to the right people at the right time. She said that “the during is just as holy as the after.” I need to stop waiting for the after to know and believe I’m holy and good and loved. It will always be during.
  2. I want to be honest. I want to start writing True Things. I want to stop pretending I need to write one way to represent me and my family well. I want to be a truth teller and wild lover of things God wants me to love, which, you know, is a LOT of things.
  3. I’ve spent a lot of my life comparing myself to women instead of working together with women. GDM operates in the latter. I want to as well. No more comparison. No more shame. Shame, go away. Let us be gifts to one another.
  4. I want to write. I am in love with good books and I am constantly wishing I could write something like those people, those lucky few, can write. News flash: I can! Stop waiting until something amazing happens or I have an amazing story to tell to give myself permission to write and just do it! So I am. Here I go. No stoppin’ me now. And I do have amazing stories, like the fact that I am married to an incredible man who is bursting with creativity and wisdom and integrity, or the fact that Sam drew a dinosaur this morning and then said, “Look, Mommy, he’s eating a chicken stick and going poo poo and pee.” A T-Rex eating chicken and defecating and urinating at the same time? Sounds amazing to me.

Or the fact that I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a week before Christmas and haven’t completely crumbled yet! (Also, bonus, I can see out of my left eye again, a miracle I daily consider.)

At this point I should probably admit that I’ve checked my phone about four times to see if anyone’s liked my latest Instagram post. And I have not one, but two journals on my table at the coffee shop and I haven’t opened either one. Failings continue. So this is probably a good time to start listing everything I hate about myself so I can repent of that and move on to love. Put on my love glasses, so to speak.

  1. I don’t like that my face is asymmetrical. I think the left side of my face is prettier than the right side. That’s messed up. The asymmetry (trust me, I’ve spent a LOT of time studying my facial asymmetry) makes it difficult for me to wear aviators because one of my ears is slightly above the other ear. Glasses look a little crooked on me.
  2. I walk into a store and I want to buy the whole store. Ben and I are taking Financial Peace University right now, which has us saying repeatedly on Thursday evenings that we wish we would’ve taken it when we were in our teens, or twenties, or before any time but Right Now. Better late than never. Anyway, FPU has me thinking about money and I actually get a little buzz by not buying shit right now, by saving it all and carefully pulling out real cash when I need to buy things we need like milk, chicken sticks, and diapers (though we’re toying with potty training Leo to save on this one). But then it’s Sam’s birthday and I walk into Kohl’s because maybe they’ll have a cheaper Eeyore than the Disney store (they don’t), and I see all of the stuff I don’t have in my house and I. Want. It. All. All of a sudden, contentment disappears and greed and desire and coolness trickles in. I want it. I want to buy it. I want a lot of crap. I don’t like that.
  3. HGTV practically ruins me. We don’t have cable (or even Netflix — Dave Ramsey made us cancel it), but when I go to the dentist or to Pennsylvania to visit my in-laws, we watch HGTV. If watching HGTV could produce intoxication in people, I would be fall-down drunk every time I get my teeth cleaned or go to the Keystone state. I especially love “Fixer Upper.” So good. And I go home from the dentist or PA and walk in our house and start mentally demolishing and redesigning with imaginary money we don’t have and the discontentment begins again. I really don’t like that.
  4. I don’t like that sometimes I hear one of my kids needing me and I pretend not to so that Ben will take care of getting milk for Leo, wiping Sam, making eggs for everyone, cleaning up a spill. I despise that in myself.
  5. And there’s this one time at a Starbucks while talking to someone I love that I just totally lost my shit at that person because I was hurting and sad and couldn’t see past my own hurt and sadness. I hate that I did that.

There’s more, but I think I’ll save those things for more truth telling later.  I’m excited that, at the very least, I believe a little more deeply that God digs me.

This summer has been magical and wonderful for a couple mighty reasons — we’re all home as a family, our boys are finally playing together and are so much fun when they’re sweet, and good, and fun. We’ve been dreaming of great and wonderful things we might do together and feel God’s blessing about. We’re excited for new things on the horizon with the upcoming school year as English teachers in new schools. We’re excited to create. And right now I need to go to other big things like thank Ben for giving me the morning off to read and write and compulsively check my Instagram account, and play Legos with Sam, and renovate more rooms of our house in my head, and tuck in tiny Leo feet for naptime.

Those Big Things are the best things.

[PICKLES PHOTO COURTESY OF PINTEREST]