Book Review: The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr


The memoir genre is intriguing to me, in spite of the fact that I am, and because I am, a highly sensitive person. I say, “in spite of,” because memoir is descriptive and evocative and intense, and I am easily emotionally swayed when reading about others’ (often traumatic) experiences. Reading memoir can be painful for me, but in the end, it’s usually worth it, because it allows me to grow in compassion and understanding and perspective. And as a highly sensitive person, I am drawn to memoir because of its introspective, navel-gazing nature—its focus on internal and external detail. Memoir is about analyzing and reflecting on emotions, conversations, and experiences. I do this constantly, so memoir is, for me, comfortable territory (while often being uncomfortable).

I’ve never read any of Karr’s memoirs, although I may do so now that I’ve had the privilege of glimpsing her behind-the-scenes creative process and philosophy of memoir writing. Karr answers some questions I’ve always had about memoir (What are the standards of accuracy and honesty in memoir writing? What are the legal and ethical considerations when writing about real, still-living people?), and she also presents a lot of information that I “didn’t know I didn’t know” about reading and writing memoir. She praises and critiques short memoir selections, using them as examples of what to do and what not to do, from a variety of writers. At the end of the book, Karr includes an extensive list of recommended memoirs.

Book Review: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, by Karen Swallow Prior


In each chapter of Booked, Karen Swallow Prior analyzes a literary work and relates it to her own life, explaining how each piece has instructed and shaped her. Even though I have only read some of the works Prior discusses, she presents them all in a very appealing and approachable way that makes me want to read the ones I haven’t gotten to yet. I was fascinated by the unique hybrid essay/memoir/literary analysis approach of this book. My only criticism of Booked is that I wish it were longer. I hope that Prior will write another book in the same manner as this one.

The Birth Story of Our Littlest Sweetheart


I always knew I wanted at least three children, but probably four. We had our three pretty close together, and those early years were very joyous, but very physically and emotionally demanding. I didn’t feel like we were “done,” but it took T and me about four years to both feel ready to have another baby. When we realized that we would never regret having a fourth child, but that we might regret not having a fourth child, our decision was made.

Even before I became pregnant, I knew that I wanted A, who had been present at the births of our second and third children, to be my primary midwife. Our first three babies were born at a freestanding (not part of a hospital) birth center. A used to work there, but she now had her own midwifery practice and only did home births. In some ways, I would miss the “spa” atmosphere of the birth center, with its fancy décor and large birth tubs and other amenities, but I fondly remembered A’s gentle, caring, calm personality, and I knew that I would feel comfortable and safe with her as my midwife.

My first indication that I was pregnant was a sudden, strong metallic taste in my mouth while I was driving to a meeting one evening in early November. I had that symptom with my first pregnancy, as well. I took a pregnancy test later that night, but it was negative, which I sort of expected, since I was only at 11 days past ovulation, and pregnancy tests are often not sensitive enough to detect a pregnancy that early. I took another test two days later, and it was very faintly positive! I told T right away, but I pointed out that the line was barely detectable, so I wasn’t absolutely certain it was there. I took another test the next morning, and it was a very light positive, as well. But I wanted more confirmation than that, so I waited a few more days, bought a different brand of test, tried again, and at last, got the two nice dark pink lines I had been waiting for. I finally let myself believe I was pregnant.

I thought about waiting until Christmas to announce the pregnancy, but I didn’t want to wait that long. We bought the kids Big Brother/Big Sister shirts and let them unwrap them on Thanksgiving in front of my parents and my grandma. Shortly after, we posted photos on Facebook of the kids wearing their new shirts, so that is how we announced the pregnancy to everyone else.

When I was 11 weeks pregnant, I had an emergency appendectomy.

Morning sickness wasn’t too bad, just mild-to-moderate queasiness several times a day. I never threw up, and the nausea tapered off by around week 13. I drank a lot of Earth Mama Angel Baby Morning Wellness tea, which did help; however, I now have an aversion to it, since I associate it with feeling nauseated.

When I had an anatomy scan (the “big” ultrasound where they check everything) at 21 weeks, I was told that the placenta was anterior (toward the front of my abdomen, instead of toward the back, which is more common). This seemed to corroborate my perception that I wasn’t feeling this baby kick and move anywhere near as much as my other babies (since an anterior placenta sort of cushions the impact of a baby’s movements, making them less noticeable). I had another ultrasound toward the end of pregnancy where the anterior placenta was again mentioned. But then, when I was still pregnant well beyond my due date, I had yet another ultrasound and mentioned something about the anterior placenta, and the technician said, “You don’t have an anterior placenta.” I said, “Well, that’s weird, since up until this point, I have been told that I do. It must have moved somehow.” Then she said, “No, it doesn’t work that way. It can’t just move.” So, either one of the ultrasound technicians was wrong about the placement of the placenta, or I had a magically moving placenta. Whatever. It’s a mystery.

Also at the anatomy scan, we found out that we were having a girl. We had had a boy’s name picked out for years (and I’m a little sad we’ll most likely never get to use it, because it’s awesome), but we were a little less sure about a girl’s name. I don’t think T ever volunteered a first name he actually liked; he just vetoed a bunch of first names I liked, which included Peryn, Tessa, and Maisy (or Maisie). Actually, I think he was okay with Tessa, but we decided that the name we ended up with was even better. He thought Peryn sounded too masculine and Maisy just made him think of the Maisy Mouse franchise. We landed on Calista for a middle name right up until the end of pregnancy, when we decided to go with a different three-syllable middle name. I’m not big on putting my kids’ personal info out for all the world to see, so I’m not going to say what name we actually chose for her, but it’s beautiful, and we like it. It’s a two-syllable first name, and, as I mentioned, a three-syllable middle name.

Around 30 weeks, I was diagnosed with “impaired fasting glucose,” meaning that I was most of the way to having gestational diabetes, but not technically all the way there. After I found out that my blood glucose level was getting too high overnight, I started eating low-carb dinners and nighttime snacks (including a handful of almonds in the middle of the night every night), and that allowed me to get my blood sugar under control. It was annoying to have to cut out nighttime desserts and to poke my finger every morning, but at least I didn’t have to completely cut out sugar and poke myself four times a day, which is what I would have had to do if I had had full-blown gestational diabetes.

It was a really hot summer for the Pacific Northwest, and I was pretty much constantly a puddle of sweat from about May on. We don’t have central A/C, but fortunately, we have a small unit in our bedroom, so I camped out in there as much as possible. I watched a lot of Netflix. I blew through all the seasons of Hart of Dixie, Friends, New Girl, Chopped, and Gilmore Girls. I should have exercised more, but it was just Too. Darn. Hot. And my back hurt. And my feet were too puffy to wear anything but flip flops.

My parents were in between houses for most of the summer, so they parked their trailer at an RV park about 45 minutes away from our house. I had originally thought that they would be too far away to be able to take the kids while I was in labor, since they normally live about four hours away, but when I found out they were going to be staying only 45 minutes away, I asked if they would, and they agreed. I was relieved, because although I think we probably could have made it work, I knew I would be more comfortable and uninhibited laboring without our other kids around.

Littlest Sweetheart (hereafter “LS”) took a long time to get into position! She generally liked to hang out in a transverse (sideways) position for most of my pregnancy. One time, when A was at my house for a pre-labor home visit (I think I was about 37 weeks along), she could tell that LS was transverse, so she did a very gentle external version (it didn’t hurt at all; there was lots of fluid and still plenty of room in my uterus) to make LS go head-down. Well, that only lasted for less than an hour, and then I noticed that LS was transverse again.

At 39 weeks, A was having a hard time assessing LS’s position, so at her recommendation, I had an ultrasound on my due date. LS was head-down (hallelujah!), and she stayed head-down from that point on. A also recommended (in accordance with standard midwifery protocol in my state) that I have a biophysical profile at 41 weeks. Everything looked just fine at both of the ultrasounds. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had not given in to having so many ultrasounds done (I wanted to either have zero or just the one anatomy scan, but I ended up having five, I think—two while in the hospital for my appendectomy, one about halfway through, and two in late pregnancy).

As I expected, 40 weeks came and went (our other babies were born, respectively, 3, 8, and 14 days “late”). I didn’t feel that labor was imminent, but I also knew I had better stick close to home, since our second and third babies came very quickly once labor started. I really missed going to the beach this summer, but by the time the weather was warm enough and T could take some time off work, I was too close to my due date to travel that far. I was actually happy to go a little beyond my due date, which was the same day as one of our daughters’ birthdays, because I didn’t want her to have to share her birthday (this year, and every year after) with LS.

40 Weeks

A asked if I wanted her to do any membrane sweeping to try to get things going. The first time she asked, I declined, since I am pretty squeamish about things like that, but at my next two (post due date) appointments, I consented, because I was starting to feel like LS might need a little help getting a move on. I had my heart set on a homebirth and wanted to avoid going to a hospital unless it was a life-or-death matter, so I was willing to try pretty much any and all natural methods of labor induction.

One of those appointments was on the first Wednesday in August. Since I was dilated to 3-almost-4 centimeters, but was not having contractions, A suggested acupuncture. I tried acupuncture that afternoon. I don’t know that I would pay to regularly have it done, but I have to say that it was relaxing, and I enjoyed it (I think I actually fell asleep for a while). I kind of hoped that I would start having contractions while the needles were still in me, but that didn’t happen. That night, I rubbed on a little bit of some Love Your Labor oil that my friend had given me. I tried using a breast pump for a while, too, and the combination of acupuncture, the labor oil, and the pump actually did produce some mild contractions, but they didn’t last long.

The next day was Thursday. At 42 weeks and 5 days, according to my dates (which I know were accurate because I had been religiously charting à la the Fertility Awareness Method), but at what was legally considered 42 weeks, 0 days (since LS measured 5 days smaller than expected during an early ultrasound), A wanted me to try some “heavy duty” methods to bring on contractions, including various homeopathics, tinctures, a castor oil root beer float, and using the breast pump a lot. I didn’t mind the homeopathics, tinctures, or the pump, but I hated everything about the castor oil. It just felt wrong and unnatural, and after I downed it, I instantly regretted it. I felt like I had betrayed my body and done something horrible to myself. I felt gross, and continued to feel gross and worried and anxious as the castor oil took effect. If I could do it over, I would do the other things, but not the castor oil. I had some light contractions, but they were not painful, and they tapered off.

At the end of the day, I was discouraged, frustrated, irritable, and uncomfortable. I felt like the Most Pregnant Woman Ever. I was worried that nothing I could do would help LS come out, and that I was going to have to be induced and have her in a hospital.

Not to get all TMI, but there was one more labor induction method that A strongly recommended (if you Google natural induction methods, I’m sure you can figure it out), so T and I decided to give it a try that night. It worked—very quickly. I felt a few “pops” in my abdomen, and then I felt the gush of my water breaking. Yay! LS was actually going to come out! My water broke at 10:47 P.M., and we immediately called A. She, and her apprentice, C, and another licensed midwife, J, who works with A sometimes, would gather their supplies and rush to our house. We quickly phoned my mom, who also would hurry over. T briefly left my side to start filling the birth tub, which was set up in the living room.

Strong contractions started immediately after my water broke. There was no point in pulling up the contraction timing app I had installed on my phone, because the contractions were pretty much right on top of each other from the beginning. LS was (finally) very ready to come out!

The midwives arrived a few minutes before 11:30 PM. My mom came shortly after that, gathered up the kids, and took them to a nearby hotel.

All this time, I had remained lying on my side in bed. Around midnight, the contractions started getting crazy intense. I kind of needed to use the bathroom, but I was afraid to move from my side, because at least on my side, I knew what to expect, and I was worried that if I had a contraction on the way to the bathroom, it would hurt even more. Well, I did end up having a contraction on the way, and it was horrendous, but I managed to quickly do what I needed to do and get back in bed.

Somebody asked if I wanted to get in the birth tub, and I remember snapping that I just wanted to stay right where I was. By 12:30 AM on Friday, I was in almost unbearable pain. Mostly face-down on the bed at this point, I was thrashing about and screaming. I don’t remember wiggling around so wildly in labor with my other babies, but this time, I just had to. Somehow it helped distract me (a little bit). I obviously wasn’t thinking super clearly at this point, but in a moment of lucidity, I reminded myself that I was truly grateful that this was all happening the way I had hoped and planned it would. I hadn’t had to be induced. I was in my own comfortable, familiar bed, attended by the midwife I had personally chosen, who cared about me and respected my wishes. My husband was right next to me, comforting and encouraging me. I knew LS would come out soon.

Involuntarily, I started pushing at 12:50. I was still mostly lying on my stomach, which is a weird position to labor in, and A suggested that I might be able to push more effectively if I turned onto my side again. I didn’t want to budge, and she had to repeat her suggestion several times, but I eventually did move onto my side, only because I was emotionally getting to the “I’m-so-done-this-baby-needs-to-come-out-NOW” stage. Between contractions, I kept shifting around, and I actually ended up getting into a supine position, which I would not have predicted myself using to push out a baby (my other babies were born with me in either hands-and-knees or squatting positions), but this time around, it felt right.

By 1:15, I was feeling completely desperate. I was out of my mind with pain and was frustrated that the baby still hadn’t come out yet. A few minutes later, A reported that LS was moving down, and that really encouraged me. At one point, I felt A’s fingers inside me, sort of pressing in on one side, and I felt annoyed! I remember thinking, “OW! Whatever she’s doing is not helping me feel any better!” (Looking back, I’m pretty sure that was when A was unwrapping the cord from LS’s neck.)

I don’t remember much about the last few minutes of pushing, but I know that A kept reminding me to slow down and breathe. LS came out basically all at once, at 1:20 AM. According to the midwives’ notes, it was only 11 seconds from her crowning to being all out!

I unconsciously breathed out, “Thank You, God!” as soon as I felt LS slide out of my body. I felt relieved in every sense of the word. A laid LS on my chest. I was extremely pleased to see that she had hair, and lots of it! I announced her name, stroked her gently, and checked for “ten fingers and ten toes,” which were all present. Despite a bit of bruising on her face which has by now mostly faded, she was (and is) beautiful.


Ten minutes later, I started hemorrhaging. I wasn’t worried at all, but I could tell A was. To make her feel better, I reminded her that I bled a lot after the births of all of my other babies and said that I felt okay at the moment. Still, she gave me a shot of pitocin. I pushed out the placenta at 1:35, and T cut the umbilical cord a couple of minutes later.

Now that the major hubbub was over, it felt mystical and otherworldly to be awake, with lights on all over the house and people talking, as if it weren’t the middle of the night. And I was holding in my arms a brand new person, who had taken her first breath only moments before. I started nursing LS while the midwives cleaned up the bedroom and eventually went out to the living room. T also went out to the living room to take down the unused birth tub. I heard the midwives talking in hushed tones and explaining something to T about the placenta, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.

When T came back in the room, I asked him what the deal with the placenta was. He said it was something with the placement of the umbilical cord and that it could have been dangerous, but everything turned out okay, so I shouldn’t worry about it.

Later, I asked my midwives for photos of the placenta and a more thorough explanation, and I also did more research on my own. As I understand it (I’m not an expert), instead of inserting in the middle of the placenta, as is typical, the umbilical cord inserted in the amniotic membrane, which made the vessels very vulnerable to tearing, as they were not as protected as they would have been with a normal insertion. This kind of insertion is called a velementous cord insertion. Apparently mine was an especially prominent case, and my midwives were very surprised that the unusual cord insertion had not been detected during any of my ultrasounds. The placenta was so unusual that my midwives asked if I would be willing to donate it to the midwifery school where they had trained. I didn’t have any desire to keep the placenta, so I agreed. I’m actually glad—now that I know everything turned out well—that I didn’t know about the velementous cord insertion in advance, because not only would I have been terrified of a bad outcome, but I’m also pretty sure that I would have had no choice but to birth in a hospital.


Before my midwives left, they did LS’s newborn exam. They asked how much I thought she weighed, and I guessed 9 pounds, 11 ounces. I was a little off—she was actually 10 pounds, 2 ounces! My biggest baby by a full pound.


LS was in good health at birth and nursed normally for the first day or so, but the following week was extremely challenging, as she had some blood sugar issues and became lethargic and too sleepy to nurse much. I was engorged, and nursing was very painful. Thankfully, I had a plentiful milk supply, so I ended up pumping, and T and I took turns every couple of hours squirting pumped milk into LS’s mouth with syringes. That first week was stressful and exhausting, but eventually, LS gained enough energy and motivation to suckle normally again, and she turned into a good nurser. Breastfeeding continued to be painful for me for the entire first month of her life, but I am glad that she and I persevered. Although nursing hurt more this time around than with any of my other babies (with the possible exception of my first), one mercy was that, for whatever reason, I did not experience uterine afterpains. (It probably had something to do with the fact that—per A’s advice—I allowed myself to max out on ibuprofen and acetaminophen, alternately, round-the-clock for several weeks after birth. Normally, I tend to prefer natural and alternative remedies over conventional drugs, and I hate taking any medicine unless it’s absolutely necessary, but this time around, due to the extreme pain of breastfeeding, painkillers were absolutely necessary for my sanity).

LS is now three months old, and she is a delight. She gets compliments on her abundant wavy/curly hair every time we go out. She loves staring at venetian blinds and pictures on walls. She enjoys the sound of the piano (I played the piano a lot during pregnancy), and she thinks it is fun when her own fingers manage to play notes on the piano. She is just starting to learn how to reach for toys and hold onto them. She is not an “easy” baby per se; she actually fusses quite a bit, especially when away from home. She seems to be a homebody like her mama, very much appreciating familiar surroundings. But she is such a sweetheart. She gives me big smiles after every feeding now, and sometimes even giggles. Her big sisters dote on her, and her big brother—well, he mostly ignores her, but he’s a very bookish nine-year-old boy, so that’s to be somewhat expected. T and I are relishing having a baby around to snuggle again. We know how fleeting babyhood is, so we are trying to savor every minute of it. We are so thankful that God spared LS’s life, and we know that He must have a special plan for her.


What’s Been Keeping Me Busy Lately


She was my most “overdue” baby, arriving toward the beginning of August at just shy of 43 weeks! She was also my heaviest baby, weighing in at 10 pounds, 2 ounces. Someday, I’ll write out a more extensive birth story, but for now, I’ll just say that she was born at home with midwives in attendance. It was a good birth experience, but it was pretty fast and very intense! I was not quiet, and I later asked my midwives if I was the loudest client they had ever had. They assured me I wasn’t, although maybe they were just saying that to be nice! My voice was hoarse for days afterward.

She’s such a sweetheart and a precious gift. We’re so thankful for her.

Every Good and Perfect Gift

My kids, especially my 4-almost-5-year-old, have been begging for days to bring their trikes and scooters to a park. It’s been so hot lately that I keep saying no, since I’m now 36 weeks pregnant and the A/C in our van isn’t working consistently. In fact, it seems to only work about 5% or less of the times I try to use it. But this morning, it was a tad cooler than it has been lately, so I finally said yes. I was amazed that the A/C actually worked on the way to the park! The temperature wasn’t even necessarily hot enough to justify using A/C, but I was so thrilled it was working, I left it on for the entire 10-minute ride to the park.

I found a picnic bench in the shade and plopped down with my current read (Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson), and pretty much let the kids roam free. They watched ducks, chased dragonflies, rode their trikes and scooters, ran around, and generally made merry. It made me happy and thankful and content to see my three beautiful, healthy children excitedly exploring nature on a perfect, sunshiny, blue-sky day. I was glad we had come.

When it was time to leave, the kids were worn out and thirsty, and the temperature had been steadily creeping up. I knew that there was no way that the van A/C would work–again!–two times in a row!–but miraculously, it did. It seemed like a gift from God, a little reminder that He sees and He cares and He loves to bless me, even though I don’t deserve it.

Once I asked one of my favorite Bible college professors how we can tell when a good thing is just a coincidence or when it’s actually God purposely doing something nice for us, and he replied, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” I feel like that verse applies in my situation today. I don’t pray as often as I should; I didn’t pray specifically that the air conditioning would work today, or that the kids and I would have a lovely time at the park, and yet, God gave those things to us. Even when I’m crabby and apathetic and fearful, His kindness leads me to repentance and awe.

Book Review: In a Mirror, by Mary Stolz

I saw In a Mirror recommended on Gretchen Rubin’s list of May book club choices, under the heading, “An outstanding children’s book.” As far as I can tell, the book was written in 1953. It is somewhat hard to find. My library system didn’t have it, but I was able to get it through interlibrary loan.

It’s strange to me that this young-adult novel was written before either of my parents were born. I don’t really have a detailed frame of reference for the era in which In a Mirror is set. As I was reading, I was sort of picturing clothing and settings out of The Dick Van Dyke Show, but I just looked it up and discovered that The Dick Van Dyke Show ran in the 1960’s, not the 50’s. The only other thing I can think to compare it to is the movie, Mona Lisa Smile, which, like this book, is set at a women’s college in the 50’s.

In a Mirror is the introspective, first-person, journal-like narrative of Bessie Muller, an overweight, opinionated, aspiring writer. She finds her identity in her intelligence and writing ability, but due to her appearance, she always feels stuck on the outside-looking-in regarding the “real life” interests, such as dating and fashion, of most girls her age.

The book contains some pretty turns of phrase and is more artfully written than most young adult books, but it’s not spectacular. I wanted to be “wowed” by the conclusion, but the book kind of quietly fizzled out. I enjoyed In a Mirror while it lasted, but I probably won’t ever re-read it.

Pregnancy Update: 28 Weeks

Yesterday, for the first time this pregnancy, I was able to feel a large, hard mass in my abdomen that was either Baby Girl’s head or her bum. I’m hoping it was the latter, and that she has turned head-down.

She has been dancing and swimming around like crazy in there lately! She also gets hiccups sometimes, which is such a strange feeling, but kind of cute.

I’ve been very happy with my experience with Samaritan Ministries. It looks like 100% of the expenses from both this pregnancy and from my appendectomy several months ago are going to be covered. In fact, I’ve already received most of the money in the form of checks from other Samaritan Ministries members.

This past weekend, I was at my church’s women’s retreat. Another lady and I led the worship sessions. She played guitar and sang, and I played piano and sang. I’m very comfortable singing in front of people, but this was really my first time playing piano in front of people as an adult, so it was definitely a stretch for me. I enjoy playing piano, but I’m not great at it. I’m really slow at reading sheet music, so I prefer to just play from a chord chart and by ear. Anyway, things went pretty well, and I’m glad I did it. It felt good to not allow fear and anxiety to hold me back from trying something that was outside of my comfort zone.

Homeschooling-wise, we are winding down for the year. I’m planning to focus mostly on science over the summer, since I didn’t do much of it with the kids during the school year.

My husband’s car was stolen two nights ago night from our driveway. :-( A generous friend is letting him borrow a vehicle for a while, so T can still get to work without leaving the kids and me stranded at home all day, every day. We’ve reported the theft to police, so I hope we will get the car back.