Old Habits, New Assignments

For the past decade, I’ve kept a list of almost every book I’ve read. It grew out of the school-days habit of citing every source and became a fun way of remembering. It might seem excessive (or probably, obsessive), but I realized long ago that I can’t keep everything straight, and I didn’t want to lose any valuable ideas. Or insights. Or really great sentences.

I’m planning to change my reading habits in the upcoming year, so I was looking back at my decade of lists and notes. I’m so glad I saved this stuff.

In 2009, I read books about motherhood. The list contains only seven titles, possibly because I was busy being a new mom. In 2010, I was reading about creativity: Alain de Botton, Lewis Hyde, Twyla Tharp, and a weird biography of Emily Dickinson. It’s hard to remember those sleep-deprived months with a tiny Caroline, but I’m guessing it was at least comforting to read about creativity since I had no energy to create anything. Apparently, I also read Julie and Julia that year. Remember that movie? The book was better.

It appears I finally got around to Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood in 2011. Along with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life, it still sits on my bookshelf, having survived the great book purge of this past summer. That same year, I stepped into the inspirational vortex of the Christian literary industrial complex, reading books by Donald Miller, Ann Voskamp, and John Eldredge, among others. There are worse things to spend your money on, I suppose.

Wow, 2012 was a good reading-year: Marilynne Robinson, Martin Buber, Eugene Peterson, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer filled my free time. Also, I re-read two all-time favorites: The Life of Pi and Their Eyes Were Watching God. The high volume and quality of books here make me believe that 2012 is the year I got a library card.

The following year, 2013, I started blogging 1,200 words a week and, according to my list, found more time than ever to read. I also took a deep dive into nonfiction, with the poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss being the most impactful book I read that year. I plan to read that one again.

The remarkable thing about 2014 is the number of books I read and annotated, thirty-three in all. Many of these titles I remember as serendipitous finds at the public library—that is, books that found me. The star of 2014 was Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside, a book whose lyrical language mesmerized me and deepened my love of the ocean.

In 2015, I stumbled upon the writing of Avivah Zornberg, a Torah scholar. Mind blown. The next year, I loved reading Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Helen McDonald’s H Is for Hawk, books that opened up unfamiliar worlds to me.

My 2017 reading was a real hodge-podge of memoir and Bible history and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brené Brown. Ilana Kurshan’s If All the Seas Were Ink was the highlight. It’s not only a brilliant memoir of her reading life, but it confirmed that the kind of book I want to write can be done. My 2018 list doesn’t contain a single novel. By then it was clear that I’m a nonfiction nerd, and I’m okay with that. Notably in 2018, Walter Brueggeman’s brilliant books revealed new ways of looking at the Bible.

This year, the eleventh of obsessive reading and note-taking, I read a record forty-six books, mostly in the genres of memoir and history. The one exception is a novel written for tweens: Cylin Busby’s The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs. My daughter insisted that I read it, and with every other chapter I finished, she’d be standing nearby asking, “What part are you on now? Did the ship sink yet?” (Note to self: we should have a talk about the concept of the spoiler alert.) While I never would’ve chosen the book—a novel about a heroic seafaring cat—I really enjoyed it.

Even the part where the ship sank.   

Plus, the novel was a preview of what I’ll be reading in 2020. A few months ago I started working in the school’s libraries, which serve Pre-K through eighth graders. A few times a week, a child will ask for my recommendation — most recently, for “a book that’s kind of long but not too long.” My knowledge of kiddie lit is limited to what I can remember (not much) and very dated.

After all, it’s been thirty years since I was in fifth grade, and as much as I loved Beverly Cleary’s entire oeuvre, I need to brush up on what the kids are reading this century. (True, they don’t know what they’re missing when they skip over Beezus and Ramona.) And so I will bend to the demands of tiny people who might just find the perfect book with help from the old lady behind the circulation desk.

In the years I’ve been out of school, assigned reading has lost its luster. I like reading whatever I want. Even when I was in a book club, I often failed to read the chosen book. “Sorry, I didn’t get around to it this month,” I’d say, although it was clear I was there mainly for friendship and margaritas. This assigned reading is different: technically, I’ll be picking the titles in hopes of understanding what the kids enjoy and will, fingers crossed, strengthen their reading muscles.

Phil is skeptical, thinking I’ll make this venture into children’s literature as esoteric as possible. He says, “You’ll be persuading kids to read The Diaspora of Winnie the Pooh, or something like that.” As far as I know, that’s not a real book.

But the title is intriguing.

Stay tuned for my adventures in children’s lit circa 2020, the year of assigned reading.

annie dillard quote

What Happens in Vagus (the Remix)

Hi, there. This morning I fainted during an eye exam at the mall. The doctor feared I was having a seizure and called for an EMT. By the time they arrived – three EMTs and a police officer – I was fine. This fainting problem happens somewhat regularly at medical appointments. When it happened six years ago, I wrote a blog post about it. So, today I’ve dug out that golden oldie from 2013.  


“Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.” –Mahabharata

I like my eye doctor. She feeds me animal crackers and dabs my forehead with a damp cloth. She’s nice. And pretty, too.

This doesn’t sound like your typical optometrist, but I’m not your typical patient. I’m a fainter. A swooner. A savant of the smelling salts.

My daughter was with me during the eye exam. Knowing that she’ll need one before kindergarten, I brought her along to prove that it’s no big deal.

A few weeks ago, she tagged along when I got the pertussis booster vaccine. She buried her face in her hands and whimpered while the nurse gave me the injection. I tried to counteract her fears by bragging about my cool Band-Aid and, later, super-sore arm. Like most people over age two, she’s too smart for my tricks.

Long story short: playing it cool at the eye exam, I ended up out cold. When I came to—drenched in sweat, mortified—she was standing over me saying: “Mama! You took a nap!” She wasn’t even alarmed, just confused about my napping schedule.

The first time I fainted was in high school biology class. In college, I passed out during a women’s health event where the speaker was talking way too enthusiastically about cervical cancer. Over the years, I’ve become acquainted with the carpet at SLU library, the dermatologist’s office, the endocrinologist’s office, and now in the optometrist’s exam room. It had been five years since the last faint, and I thought I’d outgrown it.

The trigger is language: medical terms, procedures, mechanisms of disease, the words “catheter,” “intravenous,” and “retina.” In the latest case, the optometrist was analyzing my retinal scan, where you look through the peephole and the machine takes a quick photo of your eye—much easier than dilation. (Incidentally, if scientists could invent a similar scanning technique for pap smears, I and half the world’s population would be most grateful.) The doctor helpfully pointed out my retinal nerve and macula, and the more she used the word “retina,” the more squeamish I got. My ears were ringing, my eyes were blacking out, and consciousness slipped away.

I vaguely remember Dr. Oz talking about the vagus nerve on an episode of Oprah. He may have mentioned it in relation to fainting. I made a mental note of it then quickly forgot it—because I was planning to outgrow fainting.

The vagus nerve runs from the medulla down through the neck, chest, and abdomen, conveying “sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system” (according to Wikipedia). When your vagus nerve freaks out from stress, you suffer the most common type of fainting, vasovagal syncope. As I read Wikipedia’s list of triggers, my eyes alighted on the one closest to my heart, er, vagus nerve: “watching or experiencing medical procedures.”

Whoomp. There it is.

Willing myself to stay conscious doesn’t work. The more I tell myself, “snap out of it,” the quicker I’m out. Chances are, at darn near forty years old, I’m not going to outgrow it.

Maybe the reason for the trigger is that medical terminology reminds me that I’m a body, and bodies aren’t made to last. Practicing for death—it sounds so morbid. But that’s vaguely what my vagus nerve is up to.

Tempus fugit, memento mori, and carpe diem. This message was approved by my vagus nerve.

Thanks for reading! -Em

Sister’s Keeper: Coda

One day, Amanda woke up without pain. She didn’t quite trust the feeling, strange as it was. But then it came back the next day, and stayed the next. And she realized that, maybe, this is what wellness feels like. This is what it feels like when your body is your friend.

She took a risk, and the outcome is good. I could not be happier for her.

Wherever you go, there you are, and by “you” I mean your body. When the body hurts, you can’t just unzip it and come back to it later. You can’t just download yourself onto a hard drive and abandon your skin-and-bones bag. (Not yet, anyway.) Your body is you. At times, pain is the price we pay for living in bodies, without ever having asked for the privilege. While tending to my sister, I gained a great deal of compassion for people who feel betrayed by their bodies in one way or another.

Recently, I decided to read through the gospels. I noticed that Jesus taught many lessons and healed many people, but the emotion that often compelled him, according to the four writers, was compassion. Repeatedly, he was moved with compassion for the people who followed him, clamoring for attention, trapped in broken bodies.

By the time my sister went through with surgery, she’d been the beneficiary of many prayers, mine included. But, in all of those prayers, I never asked God to take her pain and give it to me instead. I wouldn’t have asked for diseased joints – gotta draw the line somewhere – but I could have asked to bear part of the burden of pain. I didn’t have the courage for it. Maybe I didn’t have enough compassion. These are the thoughts one thinks while lying on an air mattress waiting for the sun to come up.


In a broken world, we each will need healing many times, until that day of ultimate healing when our wholeness is finally sealed:

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

But for now, when we take care of someone, when we offer some tiny morsel of relief, we add one more patch to the repair of the world, tikkun olam.


I wrote earlier that our care-giving gig was easy because we were reasonably certain Amanda would recover and come out stronger on the other side. Far too many caregivers don’t have the luxury of such assurance. And so I end this series with a prayer for the caregiver:

God, source of all that is good, give comfort and strength to the caregivers of the world.

The mom of a newborn, deprived of sleep and wondering what she’s gotten herself into.

The daughter at the deathbed, all too aware of how this will end, but still offering her hand to steady the dying man on his way.

The dad of a child with needs so special they’re hard to explain, overwhelmed with contingencies and emergencies, with no rest or reprieve in sight.

The woman or man struggling to keep head above water, pulled under by a spouse drowning in despair.

The ones who tend those whose bodies have betrayed them.

The nurses, doctors, and helpers doing their best to repair the world one bandage at a time. Thank you for the revelation of medical science; how lucky we are to be alive right now.

And help us, God, to remember the best bandage is love. Amen.

PS: This is the final entry in a series. If you missed the previous one, find it here. To go back to the first one, click here.

dorothy day

Sister’s Keeper, ix (Well on Her Way)

Hi, Reader – This is Part 9 in a series. If you missed the beginning, hop back to Part 1. As always, thanks for reading!  ~Em

I helped Amanda out over the summer not so I could write about it, but in writing about it I remembered our bond. Over the years, I guess I’d forgotten how fortunate I am to have a sister.

“Having a sister or friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house,” writes Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping. “Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them.” She’s right, there’s something safe and insular about sisterhood. She’s my very first friend, and our shared forty-plus years mean that the roots run deep and tangled.

Strangers sometimes ask if we’re twins and appear mildly doubtful that we’re not. As I replied to a stranger late one night at Walgreens, “No, but we’re practically the same person.” He probably thought I was a few trombones short of a jazz band, but I was being truthful. There’s no one on the planet more like her than me, and vice versa.

When we were little, Mom had a parenting book called The Strong-Willed Child. I remember scanning the titles on the shelf and wondering, what’s that one about? At some point, I learned it was my mom’s survival guide for managing my sister. Amanda was always fearless and, I suppose, what Dr. Dobson might have called “strong willed.” She was a pistol. She was liable to get a knot jerked in her tail. (Do grandmas still make threats like that?) But it was that strong will that carried her through hard times, recent struggles included. God made her a strong-willed child, and that’s a blessing, because she had to be.

I was not a strong-willed child; I go along to get along. Some other time I’ll write about the basic dishonesty of my compliance. Maybe only siblings can be practically the same person and, at the same time, so dramatically different. In any case, this past summer the main difference was I had the chance to take care of her in the best way I could, and she had to endure it. Maybe she’ll have a chance to return the favor. If not, that’s okay, too.


Once, when we were little, we were playing at a friend’s house—four kids under age five running wild. At some point, Amanda decided to put a paper bag over her head and run wild, until she ran smack into the living room wall. I can still recall the spot where she hit, white paint, sunlit, twelve inches below the light switch. She ended up having to get her forehead stitched up.

For many years after, a half-inch scar marked the middle of her forehead. In the summer, it stood out white against suntanned skin. Eventually it faded, then disappeared altogether. Early this fall, on the flat landscape of that long-gone scar, I dabbed a cross of peppermint oil.

I had forgotten the faith-healing of my upbringing–mostly–the fierce quoting of scripture as if God was being held to the terms of a contract. It wasn’t deliberate, just pushed to the back corner of my mind with other cobwebby childhood memories. But do you ever completely outgrow the religious tradition you knew early on?

So it’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning in September, and I’m at Amanda’s house responding to a desperate text message. She’s home-bound with a cluster headache, and I’ve brought over an essential oil diffuser. When you’ve tried everything modern medicine and old-time religion can offer, might as well fill the room with a cloud of good smells.

As she gets settled under the covers, I plug in the diffuser. But before leaving her to rest, I’m compelled to do one more thing. I pour a small bead of peppermint oil on my thumb. I reach over and mark her forehead with a tiny, cross-shaped smear of oil and say a simple prayer for healing.

Did it work? She was better within a day, so either it ran its course or I should buy a sharp suit and white sweat hankie. God is good, regardless, and I’d argue that one way prayer works is that it makes us humble. It reminds us that some things—maybe most things—are out of our hands. It’s like standing at the edge of the ocean.

It seems, finally, that Amanda has made it to the shore. I admire her courage in confronting pain and doing something about it. I admire her patient endurance, when it would have been tempting to self-destruct or just give up. I respect the character she’s building by trusting deeply in God while working to strengthen her body and mind. And I can see the hope that’s growing in her: it gleams like a white scar, but it’s tougher than a diamond.

Wellness is a big step toward wholeness. And she is well on her way.

Amanda xray

Amanda’s new bionic jaws. Smile!

Sister’s Keeper, viii (One Thing Leads to Another)

Amanda and I are really good at imagining worst possible outcomes. Sometimes, mental gymnastics are required, but we were raised with a vibrant imagination for catastrophe.

I remember as a teenager calling home on a pay phone to let Mom know that dance camp (or whatever) was going fine. She was happy to hear that I wasn’t lying dead in a ditch somewhere, which was exactly where her imagination went.

I no longer dwell on possible calamities, but I’m still fairly skilled at catastrophic thinking. On Amanda’s surgery day, I thought: what if she dies under anesthesia? When her jaw was wired, I thought: what if she chokes to death? When she had severe nausea, I thought: what if she’s asphyxiated by vomit? When we left her to manage her own meds, I thought: what if she accidentally overdoses? What if she becomes addicted to these magic opioids that have ruined so many? And when she rode the awful roller coaster of pain, I thought: what if it didn’t work, this last-ditch surgical effort, and chronic pain is now a way of life?

One thing leads to another, which leads to catastrophe.

So far, in real life: no catastrophes. Slowly and steadily, Amanda is feeling better. By late July, she’s on her own again. When we all go out to dinner to celebrate her August birthday, she orders salmon and mashed potatoes—and savors every tiny bite.

At her next follow-up appointment, the surgeon releases her to work but not to drive. Because her house is in a cellular dead zone with unpredictable WiFi, she works from my house. For the next couple weeks, she sets up her laptop at my kitchen table. I pick her up around 7 a.m. and take her home in the evening.

Just when she’s feeling like a normal person, physical therapy begins. And . . . she’s back in the house of pain. The aim of the therapy is to trigger an inflammatory response that wakes up the immune system to do its healing. This inflammation hurts like the dickens.

One thing leads to another, which leads to more pain.

After a couple weeks, physical therapy gets easier. Amanda can drive herself to work. This is the new normal we’ve been waiting for. And . . . the headaches begin. Jaw pain is no longer an issue, but she’s having vision problems. She gets an eye exam and new glasses, but she’s plagued by cluster headaches.

Having taken off two months for recovery, she now has to call in sick. This is not the new normal she’s been waiting for. She doesn’t want to be known around the office as the one who’s always sick. She feels defeated and humiliated by the constant struggle to be well.

One thing leads to another, which leads to embarrassment.

Meanwhile, the hand that I stupidly cut open heals quickly, thanks to copious globs of Neosporin. All that remains is a tiny pink mark. Strangely, it aches now when the weather changes. One thing leads to another, which leads to a weather-forecasting knuckle.

The other day I stumbled across a verse in which one thing leads to another. Paul wrote in his message to the Romans,

“[W]e know that suffering produces perseverance; 

perseverance produces character;

and character produces hope.”

If this is true, by the end of her ordeal, Amanda will have unquestionable character and unquenchable hope. And although she’s embarrassed by unrelenting illness, there’s no reason to be ashamed: “[H]ope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts . . .”

We are not yet whole, but we do have hope.

Note: This is Part 8 in a series, which is ending soon. If you missed the beginning, jump back to Part 1. Thanks!

em amanda legoland

Amanda & I at Legoland, January 2018

Sister’s Keeper, vii (Bloody Knuckles)

My sister is independent. If she feels like a trip to the thrift store ten minutes before closing time, she goes. If she wants chips and salsa, she’s dining at Chevy’s as a party of one. Being a patient is hard, especially depending on others to keep track of her medicine and drive her around. It’s not easy to shift to child-like dependence.

I’ve written before about how my brain sometimes confuses my daughter and my little sister. The simple truth is I have an impulse to mother both of them. Although Amanda hasn’t said anything, I think she’s grown sick of me calling her “dear” and “darlin’,” names I call Caroline. But caregiving suits me: I like the challenge of anticipating needs and meeting them. I like that aspect of parenting, too.

In this second phase of 24-hour shifts, I feel guilty leaving Phil and Caroline, leaving my own house in a mess. Sure, they can cope without me, but they don’t think about things like wiping off countertops or trimming overgrown bushes.

The lilac bushes are driving me crazy. Every time I pull into the garage, I fixate on the dead limbs. It’s a low-priority concern in the big scheme of things, but it’s driving me batty.

One evening, I’m ready to go to my sister’s house a bit before my shift officially begins. I decide to trim the lilac bush in those few spare minutes. The dead limbs are near the ground at an awkward angle, and I struggle to get the hacksaw moving back and forth. As my right hand saws and my left hand steadies the dead branch, I watch helplessly as the blade bounces out of the groove straight across my taut knuckles. Blood immediately gushes to the surface. I drop the saw and run to the kitchen sink. As I run cold water over the cut, I deeply regret using a saw in haste.

Caroline brings me a robot-print Band-aid. Considering the stream of blood, a jumbo maxi pad might be more appropriate. I hold a paper towel on my knuckle for several minutes and stick on the robot Band-aid with strips of surgical tape to hold it in place.

When I get to Amanda’s house, she’s out of bed shuffling around in her robe, an unusual sight. She wonders aloud about the mess on her dining room table—crossword puzzles, books, old photos, Pop-tart crumbs—and I’m not really up for explaining that we have to entertain ourselves during these long sojourns.

Unfortunately, I already used up all my patience, my hand is throbbing, and she wants me to peel back the bandage so she can decide if I need stitches. This role reversal irritates me: doesn’t she know I’m the mother? But, of course, I’m not the mother. I’m the big sister, and it’d be smart to get a second opinion on my wound.

I win the first round, insisting I’d rather eat toenails than wait all night in the ER.

I lose the next round. That night, as my knuckle throbs, I toss and turn on the air mattress. After a few hours I realize: maybe this is where true empathy begins, not with the big sister ordering the little sister to drink the whole dose, lording it over her because, well, I’m the healthy one and I know best. Maybe real empathy begins here, with my left hand—my pill-crushing hand—useless because every time I grip something, dots of blood seep out of the bandage.

This minor woundedness, nowhere near the scale of hers, opens the door to understanding how it feels to want to do normal things while being thwarted by limitations.

A friend of mine who underwent the same surgery as Amanda answered my questions about her recovery, one of which was, “How long until you felt like a human again?” She knew what I was asking, which was how long it took to get back to normal. But when we’re wounded, in pain, hindered by limitations, that’s when we’re most human.

There’s nothing less human than the illusion of perfection: perfect health, perfect relationships, perfect certainty. Pain, on the other hand, now that’s perfectly human.

Maybe that’s where it begins—a genuine understanding of each other—with acknowledgement of wounds, out there in the open.

And maybe that’s how we meet each other eye to eye, as real humans, frustrated by all manner of guilt and surgery and impatience and lilac bushes.