From Bah Humbug to Happy Christmas

Merry Christmas to all my dearest friends, and a Happy New Year. If your heart is heavy this holiday season, know that you are not alone. I pray that some magic will find you, somehow, and remind you that you are most definitely not alone.

~~~~

I know I’m not the only one with a complicated relationship with Christmas Spirit. But it wasn’t until this year that I realized, fully, WHY I’ve been such a humbug for so long.

In my twenties, I learned that for church volunteers and staff, Christmastime is often stressful and beautiful. There was a lot of work… a LOT. We often locked up late on cold dark nights and hurried home to start our own celebrations after everyone else was in bed. Some years were particularly difficult due to the complicated relationships within my religious community, but I still have warm memories of cocoa and laughter and twinkling lights. The holiday was a holy day for me.

After college, after I left my church, Christmas became a time of creativity and learning. For a few years I went all out – decorating a giant tree with thousands of little white lights, making ornaments and gifts and cheesecakes and pies, figuring out how to roast a turkey and make real gravy. It was a festive time, and it was incredibly social. I was surrounded by friendship, family, and joy.

Then my father-in-law passed away. Our circle of friends slowly disintegrated. I realized that I had made a mistake in choosing the man I’d married. After a bittersweet last Christmas together, my husband and I split in January 2005. The following holiday season was anything but happy. I was all alone, and VERY lonely.

Since then I’ve had a hard time recovering my holiday spirit. Some years I’d decorate and have fun making gifts. Other years I didn’t. Even after I remarried and had a child, it just seemed like too much work to put up a tree only to have it sabotaged by pets or toddlers. And if we were traveling, forget it! I figured the tree at Grandma’s house was good enough.

garrett-and-gg

Garrett and Great Grandma, Thanksgiving 2011

Then Garrett died days before Thanksgiving 2012, and a few days after Christmas that year we lost Jon’s grandmother. Suddenly Christmas wasn’t just stressful, expensive, complicated – it just plain SUCKED. I could still pull myself together on Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t stomach Christmas. Friends have come over and been shocked that I didn’t have a tree. I blamed it on the pets, I blamed it on being tired or busy or pregnant or whatever. But I think it was more than all that. And it goes back further than losing Garrett. I think the problem is that I couldn’t separate Christmas from God, and my relationship with God right now is rather… TENSE.

Now, if God is real, I have a feeling that he 100% understands where I’m coming from and it does not hurt his feelings one bit if I don’t go to church on Christmas Eve or decorate a tree. I have found that struggling with one’s faith is a lot more shocking to other Christians than it is to Christ, whose own best friends couldn’t get it together most of the time. I believe that God is more concerned with the content of our hearts than any outward demonstration of Christmas spirit, which is probably why I’ve been able to continue making merry at Thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving, there’s so much less pressure to be spiritual or showy. All you have to do is be thankful, and spend time doing the things you love (whether it’s eating, watching football, or shopping) with the people you love.

This year, though, I can’t avoid Christmas. This year, I have a two-and-three-quarters-year-old girl who is OBSESSEDwith Christmas. All she knows about Christmas is that it has something to do with Santa and presents and mystery and being good – but most of all, it’s pretty.

Caitlin-and-Santa

Christmas to Caitlin is glitter and gold and trees and stars and ribbons.

Caitlin-and-tree

It’s cookies and music and costumes and twinkling lights.
cookie

It’s some sort of magic that she doesn’t quite understand.

It’s not religious. It expects nothing of her.

It’s just BEAUTIFUL.

Through her eyes, I remember what it felt like when Christmas was just pure beauty and wonder. When it expected nothing of me.

~~~~

For the first time in a very long time, there’s a Christmas tree in our house. The cats are doing their best to destroy it, but it’s still up and it’s absolutely magical.

And I’ve spent the past few weeks watching and re-watching different versions of A Christmas Carol, which I have long considered not just a triumph of English literature but also a timeless parable about the human condition. It is almost completely non-religious, urging its protagonist to be kind and generous not as an offering to an unseen deity but for his own good and the good of those around him. Human beings are inextricably tied to one another, and no matter how rich or self-sufficient a man is, he still cannot meet all of his needs. Charity is even more necessary for the giver than it is for the recipient.

IMG_6878

Have you seen The Muppet Christmas Carol?It’s actually rather good, in spite of all the singing.

As I get older, I understand Ebenezer Scrooge all the better and realize that I’m more like him than I’d like to admit. I once thought of him as a caricature of greed and selfishness, but I realize now that deep wounds that heal poorly become ugly scars, mistaken for hardness of heart and an inability to celebrate, or love.

As I get older, I hope that I can be more like Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who for many years forgave his uncle’s abusive rejection.

I hope to be more like Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit, and his family, who treated a meager meal and one day’s vacation like a king’s ransom – because they were together.

I remember that Christmas does, in fact, expect something of me. It expects me to be gentle. It expects me to be humble. It expects me to forgive (myself as much as others). It expects me to remember the joys and pain of years past, and to marvel at the beauty and magic I find in unexpected places.

It expects me to approach it as a child would. How grateful I am to my girl for reminding me what that means.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

~Matthew 18:1-5 NIV

~~~~

Lest you think I’ve forgotten my youngest, here is a picture of John Caleb rocking (literally) his Christmas jammies and Star Wars slipper socks. His only beef with Christmas is that we won’t let him pull the ornaments off of the tree.

JC-Christmas-jammies

Happy Birthday, Little Brother

Still my baby, but not for long…

mommy-and-JC-meet

Meeting John Caleb for the first time. I was a teensy bit overwhelmed by the feels.

Sleepy Little Monster

Sleepy Little Monster

This kid, you guys. THIS KID.

He is smiley and snuggly and curious and goes from zero to HANGRY in about 2.3 seconds. He likes being kissed and tickled, he likes graham crackers and a bottle full of milk, he likes tackling the cats, he likes pulling on mommy’s earrings and playing with dangerous things (and occasionally appropriate baby toys, too) and he LOVES his sister. (Mom and Dad are okay, I guess.) He does NOT like being laid down in his crib when there is a human being within a five mile radius to cuddle him. He does NOT like being put on his bum when he wants to practice standing (all the time). He has a love/hate relationship with his binky – sometimes it’s his BFF and other times he recognizes that it’s a tool the big people use to distract him or attempt to lull him to sleepland.

JC in Baby Jail

Baby jail. Not acceptable.

He has seven teeth and shaggy, dirty-blonde hair. His eyes are HUGE and clear blue, like a favorite marble or deep sea water off Florida’s coast. When he’s tired, he folds in half and cuddles with whatever is handy (his jacket, a dirty Tshirt he pulled out of the laundry basket, the dog’s blanket). He plays pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo and when he’s teething he bites mommy on the shoulder and doesn’t feel even a little bad about it.

Looking for Noms

In search of noms.

Eating the Noms

Eating the noms.

He’s just darling. I love him.

I didn’t realize it until after I’d given birth, but my pregnancy with John Caleb was HARD. After losing Garrett halfway through my pregnancy with Caitlin, I sort of wondered if God wasn’t going to allow me to have TWO children. I was certain that I was developing every possible pregnancy complication, but especially the ones that end in DEATH. Also, as I entered the third trimester, I started having terrible pelvic pain that was only alleviated when sitting in certain positions. I was physically tired and emotionally wrung out by the time I got to JC’s December 5th due date, which I NEVER expected to reach (both Garrett and Caitlin were a few days early). I talked to my OBs about being induced, but they wanted to take a wait-and-see approach. I understood WHY they wanted to do that, especially since I was sort of downplaying my misery. (I’d say things like, “I’m just really uncomfortable” when I was, in reality, in a great deal of pain as well as very anxious.) I finally called my OB and broke down crying and explained that I was terrified of a stillbirth, I’d already lost a child, I was hurting, I was depressed, and I needed to have this baby NOW.

And so she scheduled me for an induction the next day.

Hallelujah Squirrl

HALLELUJAH.

So that’s how I, a former natural birth junkie, ended up on a Pitocin drip, and later got not one, but TWO epidurals (the first didn’t “take,” and the second was kind of weak – but it was WAAAAAY less painful than my previous two births) on the morning of December 11, 2014.

And in the evening of December 11, 2014, at 5:20 p.m., John Caleb was born. He was just over 20 inches long, nearly eight and a half pounds, and absolutely perfect.

Caitlin meeting JC for the first time

John Caleb meeting his big sister for the first time.
And wishing she had a bottle, apparently, hence the tongue sticking out.
Caitlin looks thrilled with the new addition to the family
but I’m not sure she fully understood the repercussions of this event.
(Hell, neither did I.)

He’s had a hard first year. He developed a big ugly scab on his nose, and we had no idea WHY. It healed up perfectly, thank goodness… but not before I took the perfect first Christmas picture.

Rudolph Nose

He also was a champion barfer, depositing a few swallows of every bottle onto my clothes after every feeding. I started calling him “Ralphie” (since it was late December and I was at home watching and getting barfed on all day, I watched A Christmas Story many, many times).

Then I started with the ridiculous outfits.

Angry Tigger Just Did 9 Months on the Inside Monster Hoodie

Hashtag Sorry Not Sorry.

When I’m not annoying him, I’m boring him to tears.

Early Morning with Mommy

Worst of all, after I went back to work full-time in the summer and he started at daycare, he embarked on a five-month-long cold that developed into three different ear infections, a sinus infection, and a recent trip to the urgent care for steroid breathing treatments which we’ve had to continue at home.

Baby Hospital Gown

I seriously can’t handle the adorableness of the mini hospital gown. Or his face.

The constant sniffles and coughs and clogged ears mean that his sleep patterns are seriously wacky, which means mine are, too. And adjusting to life with two little people has been difficult at times. (I am so sorry for all the times that I ever ever EVER thought that another mom was exaggerating her complete and utter exhaustion. Really, truly, deeply, overwhelmingly, snoringly sorry.) But it’s also been wonderful. I love watching Caitlin and her brother interact. They already fight with each other (which boggles my mind – you’re barely past the larval stage! What do you have to fight about?) but JC absolutely ADORES his big sister and she is very sweet with him… most of the time. And learning to share… most of the time.

First Day Home

Our first day at home after JC was born. Look how tiny BOTH my babies were!

At the doctor's office

At the doctor’s office in September for Caitlin’s 2 year check up and JC’s 9 month well visit.

I had quite a bittersweet moment a few months after going back to work. I was driving down the road with the two kiddos in my backseat, thinking about how good it felt to have a job I enjoy as well as a little family that I adore. Two little people! Two delightful little people! … And I remembered that I should have been having those thoughts and feelings in 2013, after Caitlin was born. I should have THREE little people in my backseat now, but someone is missing. I think of him constantly, still, and feel acutely the empty spot in our family that no one can ever fill.

But my longing for the boy we’ve lost can’t overtake the joy that our youngest darling gives me. I love you, John Caleb! I cherish you and I’m grateful for you. Your smile is dazzling. Your curiosity thrills and worries me at the same time. I predict lots of “why?” questions in the future, lots of taking things apart to see how they work, perhaps a beehive-poking incident or a visit to the principal’s office to discuss the appropriate time to light off firecrackers on school grounds (short answer: never). You’re mischievous and sweet, loveable and determined.

You’re amazing. Thanks for being our little guy.

Just Chillin

Munchies Monday: Drunken Punkin Cake

You guys. YOU GUYS.

Look, I know it’s been awhile since I posted, and I’m sorry. But I’m not returning to this blog empty-handed. I’ve come with one of the best recipes I’ve ever made, and I hope and pray that right after you read this post, you’ll run to the nearest shopping center to pick up any of the ingredients you don’t currently have in your kitchen, and then get to baking STAT.

One of my coworkers recently celebrated a birthday, and since she loves pumpkin pie and her birthday is at the end of October, my boss usually picks up a pie at the grocery store for our birthday celebration. But this year I came across a recipe for “pumpkin pie cake” and I thought it would be a nice change. I did a test run with that recipe and it was totally blah. (In its defense, I did try making it with white sugar substitute, whole wheat flour, and applesauce instead of the canola oil, so maybe it wasn’t the recipe’s fault.)

So I said to myself, self, let’s just make something wonderfully decadent instead of trying to go “light.” And where does one go for wonderfully decadent food? I don’t know about you, but *I* often go to The Pioneer Woman. Or the Barefoot Contessa. Both are big fans of butter and sugar and cheese, cheese, cheese, and you really just cannot go wrong with any of those things. Unless you are trying to become very svelte. Which, theoretically, I’m trying to do, sort of, but I just love cake SO MUCH…

I digress. Back to the matter at hand.

This time my very good friend Ree (yes, The Pioneer Woman and I are totes on a first-name basis, seeing as we have never met and she’s never had a chance to say, “please call me Mrs. Drummond or better yet don’t call me at all”) did not disappoint me. I started with this recipe and tweaked a little bit. I baked a test cake, and it was devoured at work (in a different department, so my coworker would not discover what I was plotting for her birthday) and I got some feedback. So I made some more tweaks. And now we have what I have decided to call Drunken Punkin Cake and it is a Thing Of Beauty.

MM: Drunken Punkin Cake

Drunken Punkin Cake

Ingredients
For the cake:

  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1 cup whiskey (I used Jack Daniels, anything you have in the cupboard will probably work)
  • 2 & 1/2 cups flour (I used whole wheat, but you can use all-purpose. But do NOT use self-rising.)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cinnamon*
  • 1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg*
  • 1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground cloves*
  • 1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground allspice*
  • 1/8 to 1/4 tsp ground ginger*
  • 1 stick of butter, softened
  • 1 & 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 1 & 1/4 cup sour cream (I used reduced-fat, you could of course use full fat)
  • 1 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1 & 1/4 cup chopped pecans

For the icing (inspired by this recipe):

  • 8 oz reduced fat cream cheese, softened**
  • 2 Tbsp butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • splash of half-and-half cream

Instructions

To make cake:

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9 x 13 inch cake pan with non-stick cooking spray.
  2. In a small bowl, combine whiskey and raisins.
  3. Sift together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and spices. Set aside.***
  4. In a large bowl, use an electric mixer on medium speed to cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well with each addition.
  5. With the mixer running, slowly add flour mixture, mixing well until it’s fully incorporated, and scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.
  6. Add sour cream and then pumpkin, mixing till just incorporated.
  7. Drain raisins and fold into the batter, along with 1 cup of pecans. Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, til a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Cool completely before frosting.

To make icing:

  1. Beat together cream cheese, butter, nutmeg, and vanilla til well combined. Add sugar 1/2 cup at a time, beating till fully incorporated after each addition. If batter becomes too thick for your taste, add a little half-and-half as you’re mixing it up.****
  2. Frost cake liberally and sprinkle 1/4 cup reserved pecans on top. Serve to admiring friends and family.

Notes:

  • * You can substitute one tablespoon of pumpkin pie or apple pie spice for the cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger.
  • ** Kroger sells blocks of cream cheese made with Greek yogurt – it’s WAY lower in fat and higher in protein than regular cream cheese, which I thought sorta made up for the super sugary buttery cake.
  • *** I sifted the first time I made the cake and didn’t the second time. Although the cake wasn’t bad when I didn’t sift, I thought it was considerably denser. I think I learned that if a recipe calls for sifting, it’s probably a good idea to sift, even though NOT sifting wouldn’t necessarily ruin the cake. If you don’t have a flour sifter (who does?) you can just use a fine-mess strainer. Pour your ingredients into it a little at a time and gently tap it over a large bowl.
  • **** Be careful, because it will thin out quickly. (Which isn’t necessarily a BAD thing… I thought it was kind of nice to have a very shiny, sticky, free-flowing icing. And regardless of what it looks like, it’s going to taste GOOOOD.)
  • Also:
    My sister was on board with this cake until I mentioned the raisins. I think her exact words were “Raisins are bullshit.” Personally, I disagree with her, and I did not feel that the raisins were overly raisin-y after being soaked. They added to the taste of the cake but didn’t stand as chewy, sticky mini-prunes cluttering up an otherwise lovely spice cake. BUT if you just cannot handle raisins, by all means, leave them out.

    Also also:
    You could also substitute walnuts (or something else) for the pecans if you prefer, or omit the nuts altogether. But trust me, the texture and flavor of the nuts really take this cake up a notch.

    Also also also:
    Several of my baked-good-guinea-pigs said that they could not taste the whiskey in this cake, even though I had soaked the raisins in it for a good hour or so. And they were people who are not drinkers or fans of hard liquor and therefore would have noticed a distinct whiskey flavor. No one reported catching a buzz from eating the cake – except for me, because I’m totally paranoid. I was probably feeling woozy just because I was worried about getting woozy. Or maybe it’s because I ate a GIGANTIC piece. Or it might have been an intense sugar rush. Just proceed with caution.

    And lastly:
    I really hope you enjoy this cake. I think it will be in my holiday dessert rotation for many years, as it was SUPER easy to make and a BIG hit with everyone who tried it.

And here we are.

I used to have a lot of family pictures hung up all over our living room, then I took a lot of them down, under the guise of, “Oh, I’m going to paint in here soon,” and “I want to buy new frames and put different pictures up.” But that never happened.

I have a digital picture frame that’s 99% Garrett pictures – none of Caitlin or John Caleb, and just a couple of Christopher. About six months ago I unplugged it because I was trying to sleep in the living room with a sick toddler and the light was keeping me awake. But I never plugged it back in. I kept telling myself that I “forgot” or was feeling “lazy.”

Then a couple of weeks ago, I cleaned up my desk in the kitchen and moved the digital picture frame in there. Now that it’s plugged in, I see pictures of Garrett – very nearly every pictures I ever took of him! – every day all day long. And now I realize what I didn’t want to admit to myself or anyone else. It hurts to have pictures of him around. It hurts to see him smile, to remember how sweet he was, to see him playing with his older brother, and to compare what he looked like as an infant to what his little brother looks like now. It physically hurts. I don’t want to forget him, I don’t want to let his memory go, but I also don’t want to hurt like this.

Tomorrow is the fifteenth of April, two years and five months from the day we lost Garrett. He was two years, four months, and 28 days old when he died. So now we have reached the point that I’ve dreaded ever since saying good-bye to my baby: he’s been gone from us longer than he was with us. He’s been in heaven longer than he was on earth. And that breaks my heart.

Every day as I make memories with Caitlin and JC, someone is missing. When I’m caught up in the daily activities and moving forward with life – as I know I should! – it doesn’t hurt so much. I can almost forget. But then I see his face again and I remember and I hurt. I hurt so badly. And I hate that hurt.

I hate it that Caitlin has no idea who Garrett is.

I hate it that someday I will have to explain why he isn’t with us.

I hate that every happy memory I have of my child is colored with sadness because he’s gone.

I hate the awkwardness of explaining to people who don’t know me that I’ve had three babies but I’m only just now learning what it’s like to juggle the needs of two kids. (And yes, I understand that I do not have to explain this to people, but trust me, at times it can’t be avoided and I don’t like to flat out lie to people or tell them it’s none of their business because most people don’t mean to be nosy or hurtful.)

I hate regretting every choice that brought us to the time and place where Garrett was stolen from us.

I just hate it all.

But what I hate most is that we had that sweet, smiley boy for such a short time. The longer he’s gone, the more acutely I feel the loss of him and all that should have been.

garrett-minion-diner

“Imposter Syndrome”

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been feeling super creative and inspired over the past couple of weeks. Which is kind of awesome. But what’s even MORE awesome is the fact that I’ve also felt free to DO something with that creativity and inspiration, which means that I might just be recovering from my acute, chronic case of “imposter syndrome.”

I’d never had a word or words to describe the paradoxical feeling of “sure, I’m talented and I’ve done some stuff, but in reality I totally suck” that I’ve had about myself as an artist ever since college… and then I read Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon and learned the term “imposter syndrome.” Clearly, the fact that Kleon’s book was a crazy successful bestseller is indication that I’m not the only creative person that suffers from this ailment, but I really kinda sorta thought that I was. Isn’t that funny? Don’t we all think we’re super special snowflakes, if not in our brilliance, then in our failure?

But somehow – and I’m not sure exactly how, I’m seriously still trying to work that out – I’ve turned off the “I suck” talk and have actually been making and doing things that I want to make and do.

Which is GREAT.

~ ~ ~ ~

(This story is totally related but doesn’t seem like it at first.)

I work in an office with a lot of very educated people, and the work we do is (mainly) focused on the Department of Defense. So the reading material that’s lying around is a lot of magazines about IT and engineering. I’m not an engineer and the older I get the more confused I am by computers, but I like to flip through these magazines so I at least get an idea of what’s happening in our industry and the sort of work we do.

One of my colleagues in an MIT alumnus and I assume that’s how we ended up with a recent issue of MIT Technology Review. When I first saw the cover I got a little *ahem* judge-y and joked to the other designer in my office that MIT must’ve let their graphics intern go a little crazy that month because ew.

MITTechnologyReviewCoverPUBLISHEDweb

But then I googled the illustrator and found out that oh hey he’s kind of brilliant and successful. Whoops! This just goes to show that yes, although there are objective “rules” for design, the enjoyment of design as art is still very subjective. Or perhaps it goes to show that I just don’t know what makes good design nowadays. (Second option is much more likely.)

Anyway, I became kind of fascinated with this designer, Elliott Earls. I will be totally honest with you: I think this guy’s work is weird. But I like it because what he’s doing is so authentic, so uniquely his own voice, that it inspires me to speak with my own unique voice even if (even WHEN) someone else thinks my stuff sucks.

While I was plugging away on PowerPoint presentation on Wednesday I listened to an interview that Earls did on Designing Minds. Something he said blew me away, so I replayed that particular section of the YouTube clip over a dozen times or more to get the quote almost perfect. I even wrote it down, but I left it pinned up in the cubicle at my office so you’re going to have to be happy with a paraphrase (or go watch the interview yourself).

He said something very close to this:

My whole life was attempting to live this idea I had of the perfect graphic designer, something that just didn’t come naturally to me. But once I let go of that and started doing work that I really enjoyed and felt passionate about, it’s like my career just took off.

And seriously my jaw just dropped because wow, could I relate to that. To the idea that an artist looks and acts a certain way and that I’m not a “real” artist because I don’t look and act like that. And thinking of my work as crap because it’s not as slick and innovative as so-and-so’s. Well, newsflash, Emily – you’re not so-and-so, you’re Emily, so your work isn’t ever going to look like so-and-so’s. It’s not supposed to.

I’m sure we’ve all seen that inspirational quote on Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest that says something to the effect of “Be yourself because you’re going to suck if you try to be anyone else.” Every time I see it I’m like, “Yeah yeah yeah, kum-ba-ya, self esteem booster shot in an ugly font, NO ONE CARES.”

But now I get it.

(At least, I THINK I get it.)

I’m an artist as long as I create art. Art that comes from my interests and thoughts and experiences, that I enjoy making and feel proud of. When I let go of impressing anyone in general or someone in particular, I’m free to make something genuine and beautiful. It’s a struggle every time I sit down with a pen or pencil in my hand to silence that inner editor, that Resistance, but I’ve been remarkably successful over the past few weeks, and that feels really, REALLY good.

Learn + Create (free printable)

I’m hoping I’ll be able to blog more about this at great length later, but right now all I’ve got time for is a drive-by post. I’m feeling so inspired and creative right now. Part of the reason is that I finally got around to reading Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, which was (of course), AWESOME. The rest of the reason is that I’ve been working my butt off to clear my house of clutter, and I think I’ve managed to shake loose a lot of mental clutter, too. So I’m arting and crafting a lot lately, and I came up with a new personal motto/mantra, a daily “to do” list that I want to share with you.

At the end of the day, I’ll consider myself successful if I have 1. learned something and 2. created something. So I made a simple graphic to hang in my workspace and remind me of that:

smoochagator-to-do

If you click on the picture, it’ll take you to a full-size copy of the graphic in PDF form. Right-click on it and save it to your computer so you can print it out and post it to remind YOU to learn something a create something every day.

A quick caveat: when I posted this image on Facebook, my mom was like, “And hugged your babies! You have to hug on your babies!” Well, yes. There are other things I do every day that just have to be done, like eat and sleep and breathe and pee, and yes, love my family. Those things are built into my routine. Creating and learning, unfortunately, AREN’T. I have to remind myself to pursue inspiration and do something with it, or else I get to the end of the week/month/year and I realize I haven’t done much more with my time than watch television and shovel junk food into my face. And I want to do more than that. Much, much more. And I’m sure I’m not the only one, which is why I’m sharing it.

Happy Friday!

I’m So Happy

This weekend we celebrated Caitlin’s birthday. She’s two years old.

Party Dress and Cheese Puffs

And three months ago we welcomed John Caleb, our perfectly plump “little” guy.

Mommy and Caitlin and JC

There have been moments, over and over again in the past few months, where I’ve been amazed by how happy I am. Just kind of blown away by how very much my life finally looks the way I’ve hoped and dreamed it would.

Following Caitlin into her room while cradling her baby brother against my shoulder.

Driving the two of them to my mother-in-law’s house for the first time after I went back to work.

Getting them both into bed and then sitting down with a glass of wine to watch a movie with my husband.

Leaving work after a productive day and knowing that I get to see my babies soon.

Enjoying a lazy Sunday all four of us together.

All the simple little moments that make life good, you know? Those moments are just – they’re just awesome.

Agnes I'm So Happy!

Awesome. Except —

Except that this was supposed to be my life two years ago. I was supposed to have Garrett and Caitlin. I was supposed to be mom-to-a-toddler-and-newborn already. Instead, I was mom to an only child, and then a grieving mom, and then mom to an only child again. Ever since November 2012, my house has felt cold and empty – even after Caitlin arrived, even as we began to heal.

I didn’t quite realize it until I was about two-thirds of the way through my pregnancy with John Caleb, but part of me believed that I’d never have two children at home. Never be mom to more than one. I was terrified, in a secret part of myself, that something would happen to Caitlin while I carried her baby brother, or that he’d end up miscarried or stillborn. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, tentatively happy, but always looking over my shoulder and startling whenever I thought I saw the specter of death in my peripheral vision.

And now here I am, and we all got through that okay, and I’m just thrilled with my life, and part of me is starting to look around suspiciously, thinking, “any minute now…”

Because right before we lost Garrett, I was happy. Oh my God, I was HAPPY. My husband and I had gone through a rough time when Garrett was just under a year old, and it had taken quite some time for us to work through, but we did it. We got through it and I was so proud of us. I was so glad we hadn’t given up. I felt so unimaginably blessed. Garrett was an absolute joy, and we had so much fun as a family.

Garrett and Lijee Garrett at the diner Garrett coloring

And then I got pregnant and we were all so excited about our family growing. Even Garrett was asking to look at baby pictures all the time, and when I showed him the ultrasound of his baby sister, he held it close to his face and absolutely marveled at it. I know that sounds crazy, but he did! “Baby seeeeestur,” he whispered as he looked at the photo (the black-and-white 2D kind, the kind no one but an ultrasound tech can decipher).

And then we lost him. Or rather, he was stolen from us. And do you know what that kind of loss does to you? Losing someone violently? At the hands of a person you trusted? It’s more than disillusioning. It’s devastating. It is the very best way to define the term – and I apologize for the strong language – “mindfuck.” I mean, I’ve seen plenty of true crime specials and I’ve read Silence of the Lambs. I know there are some sick puppies out there. But when you find out one of them was living next door to you and took your child by the hand, that takes your motherly paranoia right through the roof. And it makes you think that nothing truly beautiful can exist for very long before the cruelty of this world snuffs it out.

I used to look at Garrett and my heart would ache – I would feel physical pain – at the thought of him being made fun of someday on the playground, or picked last in gym class at school. I never, ever thought that he would face something so much scarier.

I never thought that my hope and faith would be obliterated. And I NEVER thought that somehow, in the months and years that followed, that I’d find it again. That I’d be happy. Not just fake-it-til-you-make-it-happy, but really-for-real HAPPY.

But here I am.

I’ve talked about it before – how I do not understand how these things can coexist, gratitude in the midst of unfathomable loss. The way that grief cycles through my heart is painfully unpredictable. I often feel guilty, and cold, and angry, and disgusted, and hopeless. I wonder what is wrong with me. I wonder what is wrong with everyone else. I wonder how I will manage to get through another year, or ten or fifty.

I think, sometimes, that it would be nice just to lie down and give up.

And I think, other times, that there’s not enough time left on this planet to contain everything that I hope to do and see.

I feel all these things.

Everything is true and false and awful and terrible and glorious.

A few days ago I realized that I am happy, and I am scared of that happiness. I’m scared of losing big again. My paranoia has recently seized on the certainty that I will soon die of cancer. (Spoiler alert: I don’t have cancer and I have no signs of symptoms to indicate that I have cancer… But for some reason I imagine myself quite vividly overtaken by tumors.) Or that my husband will go to work on a snowy day and lose control of his truck and die in a ditch filled with ice water. John Caleb didn’t leave our house for his first two months except to go to scheduled doctor’s appointments because I had visions in my head of him getting pertussis and dying before he was due for his first round of shots.

In other words, I’m scared. Something bad might happen. In fact, it’s very likely that something bad WILL happen, given the fact that this world kind of sucks sometimes. (Although it’s quite unlikely that any given worst-case-scenario playing my head head at any moment is THE bad thing that’s going to happen.) But I came to the realization that… if something bad happens… we’ll get through it.

I mean, we can’t avoid tragedy. I’d like to think that losing big once means I’ve paid my dues, but it doesn’t, necessarily. It DOES mean we’ve learned to live again after losing it all.

And that made me feel a little bit better. (Though I’m definitely still crazy and paranoid.) There is something very freeing about accepting that bad things will happen, and we’ll never understand why, but we will, somehow, find a way to survive.

And we will, someday, find a way to smile.

Mommy and JC cuddles Caitlin and Mommy selfie