Author: Lily

What I Read in January

I started off my reading year with a bang and managed to finish 20 books in January. If that sounds like a lot that’s because…it is. I have an infant, so I am up all hours of the night breastfeeding and listening to audiobooks to try to stay awake and not drop the baby. I was still on maternity leave until January 14th, but our helper had already started working, so I wasn’t doing the full load of childcare and housework on my own.  I went back  to work for a week and a half in the middle of January, but then was back on holiday break for the Chinese New Year holiday from January 24th. And then coronavirus hit and everything shut down, so there was nowhere to go and nothing to do even if I wanted to. All of that to say, if you want to get a lot of reading done, just shut down a whole city!

Regular schools here are closed until March 2nd. Although I am going in to work at my center, we will not have face-to-face classes until March, so I’m hoping to put my downtime to good use and get a lot of reading done in February too!

Here’s what I read this month, grouped by star-ratings. Side note: I don’t know if I’m getting more generous in my old age or if I just really picked good books this month, but the majority were 4 and 5 star books for me.

5-Stars

91z6aLzcgfL._AC_UY436_QL65_ML3_Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.
It’s been several years since I read Olive Kitteridge and now I want to reread it. Olive, Again is Elizabeth Strout at her best. This follows her typical format, reading more like linked stories than a traditional novel. She continues the story of Olive Kitteridge, a widow and retired school teacher living a quiet life in Crosby, Maine, while weaving in stories from the members of her community. Olive is no-nonsense and even a bit prickly at times, but ultimately she is looking for what we all want – connection, community, and meaning in our lives. I think I liked this even more than the first one.

 

91M-7mC4i9L._AC_UY436_QL65_ML3_Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Quietly beautiful, this short novel reads almost like a long short-story. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbors for years without knowing each other especially well, but they have some things in common: their children are grown, their spouses have passed away, and they are lonely. When Addie comes to Louis with an unconventional proposal, he decides to take a chance. This was a moving book about the desire to be seen and the courage it takes to let ourselves be known. I read it overlapping with Olive, Again and thought the two made great companions.

 

UnknownDear Edward by Ann Napolitano
A new release based on a true event about a 12-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of a commercial plane crash. The narrative alternates between following characters on the plane in the moments leading up to the crash and moving forward with Edward through the years following the crash. The premise is sad, of course, but the overall effect is earnest and hopeful.

 

 

51zphfsrQfL
The Stationery Shop 
by Marjan Kamali
In 1953, Roya and Bahman meet and fall in love in Tehran. As the political situation grows tenser, their only method of communication is hiding letters inside the pages of books in stationery shop which are passed on by the sympathetic shop owner, Mr. Fakhri until one day, Bahman disappears altogether. Sixty years later, Roya and Bahman are reunited in the US having built separate lives, only to learn that they were wrong about what really happened so many years ago.

 

 

41k3O0L7vXL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
This book is intense, but so provocative and necessary. I keep trying to write a blurb for it, but I don’t think I can do any better than whoever wrote the Goodreads summary, so I’m borrowing that. “In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.”

41EiCk6nu7L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Lit by Mary Karr
This was one from my backlist that I’m so pleased to have finally made a priority. Karr’s talent as a writer and storyteller shines through in the story of her struggle for sobriety,  her journey into motherhood, and her reluctant faith.

4-Stars

41tSu0tEvNL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. I’ve been a little “meh” with Ware’s other books, but  I’m kind of a sucker for creepy nanny stories. Also smart houses, which are objectively always creepy. This definitely has some (I assume intentional) Turn of the Screw vibes.

 

 

51DXf7zXlVL._AC_UL640_QL65_ML3_

No Happy Endings by Nora McInerny
I actually saw part of Nora McInerny’s TED talk about a week before picking up this book. I didn’t even realize it was the same person until I recognized some of the details of her story. In the TED talk she spoke about how foolish it is to expect people to “move on” from grief. McInerny lost her father, her husband, and a pregnancy all within a few weeks of each other. Her memoir is by turns funny, sarcastic, achingly raw, and above all honest. It doesn’t paint her as a hero or as a martyr, just as deeply human. It is an example of the kind of vulnerability the world desperately needs.

51VZcGvvN7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
I read Maggie O’Farrell’s nonfiction book I Am, I Am, I Am in 2018 and have been wanting to read her fiction ever since. This is a common enough story -adult children come together at the family home for the first time in years, in this case, to deal with the sudden disappearance of their farther. O’Farrell portrays each family member with wit, warmth, and grace that draws you straight in to the story.

 

 

Unknown-1Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand
Look, Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read. This is her first foray into a more historical setting and I thought it was one of her best. The four Levin children navigate a summer full of personal crises, political tensions, and social unrest.

 

 

 

Unknown-2The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey
I do not read zombie books or watch zombie movies or shows. But this was great. Every day, Melanie gets strapped into her wheelchair and wheeled to school where she learns about the world from her beloved teacher Miss Justineau. And when school is over, she and the other children are strapped back into their wheelchairs and brought back to their cells with loaded guns trained on them all the while. Melanie is the brightest of the bunch, but she still can’t understand what everyone is so afraid of.

 

Unknown-3A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Sixteen-year-old Shirin has developed a tough exterior. As a young Muslim girl in post-9/11 America, she has come to expect people to be racist, ignorant, rude, and even dangerous. She copes by distancing herself from others and working on her breakdancing. When she meets Ocean James, she has no interest in letting down her guard. It turns out the only thing more terrifying than people who are intentionally cruel is someone who genuinely wants to know her.

 

 

41yZvlGPZOL._SY346_The Most Fun We Ever Had by Clarie Lombardo
These kinds of books are my jam. A multi-generational family saga about the Sorenson family: Marilyn and David, who remain wildly in love after 40 years of marriage, and their four adult daughters, each with their own struggles and victories. From Goodreads: “As the novel moves through the tumultuous year following the arrival of Jonah Bendt—given up by one of the daughters in a closed adoption fifteen years before—we are shown the rich and varied tapestry of the Sorensons’ past: years marred by adolescence, infidelity, and resentment, but also the transcendent moments of joy that make everything else worthwhile.”

51v37qUjgrL._SY346_Truly, Devious by Maureen Johnson
Other than the Charlotte Holmes series, I don’t think I’ve ever read a specifically YA mystery. Ellingham Academy is a boarding school for the brightest and the best. Each student has their own special niche. Stevie Bell’s passion is solving crimes, specifically the unsolved historical kidnapping of founder Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter by someone who called himself ‘Devious.’. As Stevie investigates the mystery, Truly Devious returns and claims a new victim. This is the first in a series, so more to check out in the future.

 

41QxLdr5bOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
This was so creepy and I was really into it. On her 25th birthday, Libby Jones inherits a house from the birth parents she never knew. The house has been abandoned for twenty-five years, ever since the day police arrived to investigate reports of a crying and found ten-month-old Libby alone in her room while down in the kitchen were three dead bodies. The four teenagers who lived in the house were never found. Libby is determined to find out about her past and what really happened in the house.

 

3-Stars

Unknown-4The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. This book felt weighty and important more than it was enjoyable. It tells a multi-generational story of a family in India. It is part family tragedy, part love story, part examination of intricate family relationships, and part indictment of society, particularly of the caste system. I found the storyline a bit difficult to follow because of the jumps back and forth in the timeline. Without spoiling anything I will say that I understood the symbolic significance of the ending, but I still didn’t like it.

 

 

71bkQswznpL._AC_UY436_QL65_ML3_A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan. Alice Pearse is just your average woman trying to have it all-a husband, kids, friends, and a meaningful career, in this modern world. This was delightful in it’s relatability, but precisely for that reason it will probably not age well. An especially fun read if you like books about people who love books.

 

 

 

 

Unknown-5Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica. Pretty standard psychological/domestic thriller.

 

 

 

 

 

40645634._SX318_Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi. I don’t watch Top Chef so I wasn’t familiar with Onwuachi before reading this, but I’m all about chef memoirs. My main criticisms are just that, as it says on the cover, he is a young chef. He doesn’t have a ton of experience in the kitchen or the restaurant industry and he comes off as arrogant at times in the book given how little experience and training he actually has.

 

 

2 Stars

Unknown-6Treasuring Christ When Your Hands are Full by Gloria Furman. I am sure this book would mean a lot to some people, it just wasn’t for me.
Pros: This book is not a self-help book. It is chock-full of Scripture and theological truths and every page is pointing to the message of the gospel.
Cons: I could not relate to the author at all and it was a dry read.
I knew this book was not for me when the author told a story from her own life where her washing machine broke and she let out a cry of frustration (not a curse, mind you, just a frustrated noise) that brought her children running. And she immediately repented of her sin in being short-tempered and thanked God for the opportunity to model repentance in front of her children thereby pointing them to eternity.

Look, Gloria, you and I, we’re not the same thing. Being convicted for losing your temper? Sure. But then you took it a step too far. I’m not saying she’s wrong in her feelings and thoughts at all. I’m saying I found her to be extremely difficult to relate to.
Mainly, I just didn’t feel like this lived up to the title. It’s not a bad book. I think it might mean a lot to holier women than I. It just wasn’t for me.

***

Have you read any of these? Do tell! I love talking about books almost as much as I love reading them. Also, don’t forget that you can follow me on Goodreads!

 

My Year in Reading and Best Books of 2019

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Time to wrap up my year in reading and give a shout-out to my favorite books of the year.

First, some stats. I read 131 books this year totalling 44,265 pages. That might be a new record for me, at least since I’ve been keeping track. If you want to see everything I’ve read this year and follow what I’m reading in 2020, check out my Reading Challenge on Goodreads

Of the 131 books I read in 2019:

103 were Fiction, 27 were Nonfiction, and 1 was a Poetry collection.

34 were Contemporary or Literary Fiction
28 were Thrillers/Mysteries
17  Were Historical Fiction
14 Were Memoirs or Autobiographies
10 were Fantasy/Magical Realism/Fiction with some fantastic elements
8 were Romances/Chick Lit
6 Were Essay collections
4 were General Nonfiction
3 were Short Story collections
3 were Young Adult (2 of which were novels in verse)
2 were True Crime
1 was a Graphic Memoir
1 was Poetry

108 were by female authors

32 were by authors of color

63 were published in 2019

I gave:

26 5-star reviews*
52 4-star reviews
47 3-star reviews
4   2-star reviews
1 1-star review

1 not starred

In no particular order, here are my favorite books of the year. 

Fiction

613B57vAxRL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_The River by Peter Heller. A survival story in every sense of the word. Two boys take a weeks-long canoe trip down an isolated river when a forest fire breaks out. As the boys try to outpace the fire, they are confronted with forces more sinister than nature. I am not particularly outdoorsy and can think of few things I would hate more than an extended canoe trip, but this turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year.

 

513OSNmyDJLThis Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. Huck Finn meets Peace Like a River plus something else I can’t quite put my finger on…maybe something that reminded me of True Grit, though I’m not exactly sure why… Regardless, I loved this story about four orphans in Depression Era Minnesota who band together to escape their circumstances and run away together in a canoe. I especially liked the way the theme of religion was handled throughout the novel. 

 

612cgvJYl6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_An Elderly Lady is up to No Good by Helene Tursten. Basically this is Dexter if Dexter were an old Swedish woman. Maud is an 88-year-old woman who has reached a point in her life where she knows what she wants and has no qualms about doing what she has to do to get it…even a little light murder. This is a short book made up of a few short stories. You can get through it in an afternoon. 

 

51y9m8sQV8L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal. I really enjoyed Stradal’s last book, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, but this one was even better. Stradal has a real knack for getting at the heart of the hardworking, salt-of-the earth people that have become synonymous with the Midwest and bringing to life characters that are both funny and endearing. Bonus points for female characters excelling in a male-dominated industry. Also, the audiobook is excellent.

51eaZ1mO9ML._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

Circe by Madeline Miller I had been hearing rave reviews of this all year before I finally read it and it definitely lived up to the hype. Miller takes the character of Circe, the witch queen from The Odyssey and remimagines her as a flawed, but fierce woman fighting to make a place for herself in a world built for men. The language is rich and layered – somehow completely modern while evoking the epic poetry of Homer. 

 

51vIvZ3nnYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. I am a big fan of character-driven mysteries and would typically choose them over a police procedural. I’m stealing part of the Goodreads synopsis here because it is succinct. “In a small town in Virginia, a group of people know each other because they’re part of a special treatment center, a hyperbaric chamber that may cure a range of conditions from infertility to autism. But then the chamber explodes, two people die, and it’s clear the explosion wasn’t an accident.”  There was something about this that was reminiscent of Big Little Lies to me, not in terms of content, but in the sense that the closer you get to each character, the more clearly they all seem to have motives that make even simple things less than black and white. I also appreciated how the author drew on her own experience immigrating to the US from South Korea to create the family at the center of the drama. 

51r7YLhek6L._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. This was one of the last books I read this year and I’m so glad I squeezed it in. Isma has given years of her life to raise her younger twin siblings after their parents’ deaths. She has also worked hard to make a life for them in London and escape the legacy of her father – a jihadist who died on his way to Guatanamo. Then she makes friends with Eamonn, a man whose father is a prominent politician. He becomes entwined with her  and her sister, Aneeka. But when their brother Parvaiz becomes involved with a jihadist organization in an effort to connect to his dead father, Eamonn must struggle with his convictions and the expectations of his own father. I found this book particularly provocative because it wasn’t just the story of innocent Muslim immigrants suffering discrimination because of the actions of a few extremists who happen to share the same religion, but instead included people who did have direct connections to extremists, as if to say that these people have a right to have their stories told too. Very thought-provoking.

These books were previously mentioned in my best of the year so far post, but have retained their status as favorites.

51zVMq4SniL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This might have been my most favorite book of the year. Oral history of a seventies rock band. Feels so real, you will find yourself trying to look up their songs on Spotify. Also, I can’t be the only one who was picturing Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper while reading this.

 

61enXVybbjL._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. This has been on my TBR list for years and I finally got to it this year. I don’t know what took me so long. Orphaned twin brothers, products of an illicit union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon, grow up inseparable in Ethiopia until one day they are driven apart by war and by betrayal. Themes of identity, revolution, family, healing, relationship between doctors and patients, and the role of medicine.

 

51Sp+26DgzL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. A young girl is pulled from the frozen river, dead, then alive. She does not speak and seems to have no memory of who she is or where she came from. Multiple people try to claim her. Dreamy, lush, fairy-tale-esque. Set in a fictional world strongly resembling 18th century England.

 

51j5p18mJNL._SY346_Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Swamp girl makes her own way in a world where she will never fully belong. Set in South Carolina marshland. Extremely atmospheric.

 

 

 

Honorable Mention: A Better Man, The Poet X,Ayesha at Last, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, City of Girls, A Woman is No Man, Ask Again, Yes, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Nonfiction

I started to make a list of my favorite nonfiction books as well, but it was almost identical to my list from August, so you can check those out here. I just have two more to add:

515nXrmiT1L._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_Good Talk by Mira Jacobs. This is a graphic memoir told through conversations about race, identity, love, and family between the author, a first-generation American, and important people in her life.  

 

 

519pCwVYVDL._SX342_American Predator by Maureen Callahan Absolutely fascinating True Crime that reads like a novel about the hunt for Israel Keyes, “the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century.” As you may know, I am weirdly fascinated by serial killer true crime so this was right up my alley. Disturbing for sure, but fascinating, this is an excellent piece of investigative journalism if you can stomach that sort of thing.

And that’s a wrap! What were your favorite reads of 2019?
___________________________________________________________________________________________

*5 stars = I loved it
4 stars = I really, really liked it
3 stars = I liked it, but it wasn’t anything really special or memorable
2 stars = I had some major issues with it
1 star = I hated it

On Becoming a Mom: Juniper’s Birth Story

Juniper Evangeline Dunn was born on October 24, 2019, at 5:49 AM at United Christian Hospital in Hong Kong. Big thank you to everyone who has supported and encouraged us on this journey so far. We can’t believe she’s ours.

This is really long and a bit TMI, and I know not everyone will want to read this, but I also know some of you are really interested in birth stories. I decided to write it all out for my own memories and share it here for anyone who is interested. I will write a separate post that is specifically about my experience with the Hong Kong public hospital system.

10:45 PM – My Water Breaks at Home

On Wednesday, October 23rd, I had a normal day at work. I met some friends for dinner afterwards and got back home around 10 PM. Around 10:45 I was sitting at the table, texting with my little sister. She asked if I was about to pop, and I said yes. Little did we know how literally true that was. A few minutes later, I felt a warm gush of fluid as my water broke. I turned to Jonathan with wide eyes and said, “Either I just peed my pants or my water just broke.”

We were both a little in shock. Even though we knew from 37 weeks on that she could technically come at any time, everyone always says that first babies are usually late. I had mentally prepared myself to go over my due date. I was scheduled to keep working until 3 days before her due date. I was only at 38 Weeks, 1 Day.

We had been told in our birthing class that if my water broke at home I might need to go to the hospital sooner than normal, but that I should monitor to make sure the fluid was clear, and unless there was evidence that it was mixed with meconium, we didn’t need to rush to the hospital and could still labor at home for a few hours. 

Jonathan and I both showered and started charging all of the electronics. I was wandering around the apartment trying to text and talk to people and pack up any last things. The amniotic fluid continued to come out in gushes for the next few hours along with my mucous plug. I went through so many pairs of underwear trying to stay dry enough to move around the apartment. 

About 15 minutes after my water broke, I started having contractions. The first two were about 20 minutes apart. Then 12 minutes. Then very quickly down to about 5 minutes. We were trying to time them in the middle of everything else going on. At that point they felt like strong period cramps and I could talk through them. They were lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to over a minute, but not consistently. Around 1 AM, my contractions were consistently 2-5 minutes apart, but the length and the intensity were both inconsistent. Jonathan and I decided that since it had already been more than 2 hours since my water broke and the contractions were close together, we should go ahead and go to the hospital.

1:30 AM – We Arrive at the Hospital

We took an Uber to the hospital (about 15 minutes away) and arrived around 1:30 AM. They had me fill out some paperwork and then hooked me up to some machines to monitor my contractions and the baby’s heart rate. The nurse said the doctor would come to examine me in about 30 minutes. The nurse asked if I had a birth plan. I said no, but that I wanted to do whatever bloodwork was necessary so that I could have an epidural later if I wanted one. She told me there was no guarantee I could get an epidural. I told her I understood, but I wanted to do the bloodwork so I would have an option. She said to tell the nurses in the labor ward once I was admitted.

I laid in the bed with the monitors hooked up for 40 minutes and then the doctor came in to check me. During that time I continued to have contractions every 3-5 minutes. At this point they were stronger than period cramps, but I could breathe through them. The doctor came in to check me (so uncomfortable) and after digging around for what felt like ages, she said I was 2 cm dilated, but that the membrane was still thick and it would probably be awhile. They would move me to the antenatal ward to wait.

At this point I was a little disappointed thinking we had come a bit too early, but I was glad that I was at least dilated a few centimeters. Part of the reason we wanted to avoid coming too early was because in Hong Kong, if you are not in active labor, you go into an antenatal ward with a bunch of other women and your husband cannot come with you. They wheeled me out and we met up with Jonathan in the waiting room. He was able to walk up to the antenatal ward with us, but then they advised him to go back home and wait there since it was the middle of the night. “Get some sleep, it will probably be awhile,” they told him. I would have my phone and would call him when things progressed.

I could tell that Jonathan really didn’t want to leave, but since it was the middle of the night it wasn’t like there were any coffeeshops nearby or other places for him to wait, so I told him I was fine, and he reluctantly left. 

2:45 AM – The Antenatal Ward

They wheeled me into the antenatal ward where I was put into a room with 5 other women. All of the lights were off and everyone was in bed. By this time, I already felt like my contractions had ratcheted up a level. As they settled me in the bed, the midwife asked me, “How would you rate your pain level? 0 is no pain and 10 is you’re dying. So… like a 2?” she suggested. At this point I was thinking at least a 4, but I had no way to compare how bad it was going to get. She had she suggested 2 and I was only 2 centimeters dilated so I reluctantly said, “I guess a 2 or a 3.” Inwardly I was freaking out thinking, “Dear God, is it going to get 4-5 x worse than this?!” They settled me in the bed and said they would come check on me every 4 hours, but to come get them if I needed something before then. 

My contractions were about 2-3 minutes apart at this point and I could not understand how the other women in the ward were just laying there. I tried to lay down for a little while and “rest,” but during each contraction I had to fully focus on my breathing, and since they were so close together, there was very little “rest” time. I also felt like each one was stronger than the last. After about 45 minutes of this, I walked down the hall to the bathroom where I realized I had started bleeding quite a bit. I stayed there for awhile, just to be sitting in a different position, then went back to the bed.

I noticed several of the other women in the ward were sound asleep and actually SNORING. I was baffled. Were they feeling the amount of pain I was feeling? How were they sleeping through it? Was I just a wuss? Were we all feeling level 2 pain? I tried to lay back down, but the pain was steadily increasing with only 1-2 minutes break between each contraction. I writhed around for a bit, then stood up and leaned over the bed for awhile. Finally I decided to go back to the bathroom. Once there, I started to feel a strong urge to push. Like most people say, it felt like I needed to use the bathroom, only so much stronger it was almost impossible not to push. I remember sitting in the bathroom stall with my head leaning against the wall and starting to cry thinking, “I can’t do this for much longer.” 

Knowing they wouldn’t give me anything for pain until I was in active labor, I was a little afraid to ask and be told I hadn’t progressed at all, but I went to the desk told the midwife the contractions were much stronger, that I was bleeding. She asked if I felt an urge to push and I said YES! She said she would come to check me, but I could tell that she didn’t think it had been long enough, so we were both surprised when she finished the check and said I was 6 cm dilated. “Call your husband. We are taking you to a delivery room.”

I was in a lot of pain, but was also so relieved to hear I was all the way to 6 cm and felt somewhat justified that the level of pain I was feeling was definitely not a 2. 😉 

Poor Jonathan had been waiting at home for about 2 hours without hearing anything from me. He had expected me to be in touch once I was settled in the antenatal ward, but the combination of being in the room with all the lights off and dealing with near-constant contractions had made me forget entirely to get my phone out. I called him now and said, “Come now. It’s time.” He was a bit confused since it hadn’t been that long and I was not being a particularly good communicator, but I kept repeating. “It’s time. You need to come.” 

4:33 AM – The Delivery Room

My best guess is that I went into the antenatal ward at about 2:45 AM. According to Jonathan’s phone records, I called him at 4:33 AM. He got in an Uber at 4:38 AM and was at the hospital 10-15 minutes later. By that time, I had been moved into a delivery room. When I got there, the midwives asked about my pain level, “0 is no pain, 5 is ‘I want to cry,’ “ she said. “Six!” I shouted. 

They got me into the bed and asked if I wanted gas and air (standard offering for pain relief in HK). 

“Yes! I want something!” I yelled. They gave me a mask that I could self-administer by putting it over my nose and mouth and breathing in during each contraction, then taking it off when the contraction finished. The gas does little or nothing to dull the pain, but it does alter your perception of the pain in a way. 

 The gas was mostly effective because it gave me something to concentrate on during each contraction other than the pain itself. The best way I can describe it is that without the gas, during each contraction my mind was thinking, “I’m dying. I’m dying. Ow. Ow. I’m dying.” With the gas, my mind was thinking,” I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out. I’m trying not to push. I’m pushing anyway. I’m shouting. I’m doing these things because I’m dying.” Lol. The effects of the gas wear off within 20 seconds after you stop breathing it, so I was constantly taking the mask on and off.

By this point, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from groan/shouting at the peak of each contraction. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be pushing yet, but it seemed impossible to stop myself.

Jonathan arrived and stood by my side. The next part is all a bit hazy for me, possibly just because of the pain and intensity and possibly a bit from the laughing gas, but I remember him coaching me to breath and not to push. I remember him asking me if I wanted to change positions, but at that point I was so in the zone and the contractions were right on top of each other and I couldn’t imagine being able to move myself into a different position. I also remember that I had reached a point of not caring at all who was in the room, what noises I was making, or whether or not I pooped on the table. 

Probably 20 minutes after I got into the delivery room, the doctor came to check me. She told me to go ahead and try to push with my next contraction, then said I wasn’t ready yet and to hold off pushing and everyone left. After this, my contractions started to feel slightly different. I couldn’t really explain it, but there was almost a burning feeling to them. I wondered if this was transition. About 20 minutes later, Jonathan buzzed the midwife to ask if I could get some water. When the midwife came in, she asked if I wanted to push and I said, “ YES!” (I’d been wanting to push the whole time). The team of midwives and the doctor came back in to check again and said, “Ok, you’re ready to push. Go.”

I pushed for about 15 minutes, which was honestly a relief because I’d been wanting to push so badly the whole time. The midwives were coaching me the whole time and Jonathan was telling me he could see her head. That final big push when her body was delivered along with a huge rush of fluid was the most relieving feeling in the world. 

5:49 AM – Junie is Born

Juniper Evangeline Dunn was born at 5:49 AM on October 24, 2019 weighing 3.22 kg (7 lbs 1.5 oz). Remember that I called Jonathan from the antenatal ward at 4:33 AM and was 6 cm dilated. Which means I dilated the remaining 4 centimeters AND pushed her out in about 1 hour and 10 minutes.

The midwives took Juniper to a station on my side for a minute to make sure she was breathing and to wipe her off a little. She didn’t cry at all. Then they brought her back and showed me her little bottom, “See! It’s a girl!” before they put her on my chest, Suddenly I was looking down at this perfect little creature who had impossibly just come from my body.

She laid on my chest for a while, but eventually they had to take her away because they were having difficulty delivering the placenta. After 3 doses of pitocin, it still wasn’t coming out and the doctor eventually had to reach up in there and dig it out. Reminder…I had had no pain meds. It was…unpleasant. 

Juniper and Jonathan left and I spent about an hour massaging my uterus, trying to get it to contract and to slow the bleeding. Finally, the bleeding had slowed enough for them to stitch me up where I had torn during the delivery. 

The worst part of the actual delivery was that I tore relatively badly while pushing her head out, and since I did not have an epidural or other pain meds, I felt each rip very distinctly. The doctor did not give me an episiotomy, though it may not have helped anyway as the tearing was more extensive than just the perineum. Thankfully, they did give me a local anaesthetic before stitching me up. I vaguely remember the doctor telling me she used one continuous stitch to sew up all three layers, which might be more sore, but would heal better in the long run.

After what seemed like ages, I was moved to the postnatal ward and they brought Juniper to me. I am the last person who ever thought I would someday go through natural childbirth, much less in a foreign country. It was almost exactly 7 hours from when my water broke to when she was born. I am so incredibly thankful that labor went so quickly and so smoothly and most of all that my sweet girl is here and is healthy. 

And now, the real adventure begins!

About Juniper’s Name 

We chose the name Juniper partly just because we like it. 🙂 But the more we researched it, the more reasons we found to love it. Juniper is a botanical name, like mine, and it has a similar sound and rhythm to Jonathan’s. It means “evergreen.” One of our favorite connections to Juniper is from the Bible when the prophet Elijah fled to Horeb and was saved by hiding himself under a Juniper tree. We love the image of an evergreen – full of life and hope – also being a place of safety.

Her middle name, Evangeline, means “good news.” We’ve been pretty open about how much of a surprise her existence was for us. In the beginning, we (I) didn’t honestly feel like it was such good news. We love thinking of Juniper as someone who will bring the Good News to others, but the name is also meaningful to us as a way to speak over her that SHE is good news. To us. And to the world.

Evangeline also has special meaning to me because of its ties to Louisiana and to Cajun culture. I am originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, the place the Acadians settled when they were forced out of Nova Scotia for their religious beliefs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an epic poem called Evangeline telling the story of one of the Acadians, beautiful Evangeline and her lost love Gabriel. Evangeline became a cultural staple in my hometown and a symbol of Cajun heritage. The name is often used in the names of streets, businesses, schools, etc. So having Evangeline as part of her name is also a touchstone to where I came from.

 

No Effs to Give: On Body Image at Eight Months Pregnant

I recently posted a few pictures on Instagram from our babymoon in Thailand. A few people kindly commented on how confident I looked. At first I thought they were just being nice, but looking back at the photos, I can see what they mean.

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It’s true that I’m not self-conscious about my body or about how I look pregnant. It’s not that I look at my swollen belly and my stretch marks and think, “I’ve earned these tiger stripes,” or whatever it is the mommy bloggers like to say. I know I look huge. I am huge. But it’s also abundantly clear why I’m huge. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.

My confidence is that of a person who has zero effs left to give. And I realized that that is a far cry from who I was nine months ago.

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Back in January, I wrote this post about how very much I was struggling with my body. I had reached an all-time low, exhausted by self-loathing and feeling powerless to make any lasting change.

I spilled my guts about my desperation, and six weeks later I found out I was pregnant. Hilarious, God. Truly.

As you probably know, my initial reaction to the news was not positive. I admit, one of my first panicked thoughts was, “I can’t be pregnant now. I am the heaviest I have ever been in my life. I am going to be HUUUUGGGE.” I understand that extra weight and a changing body are a small price to pay for creating a whole new life, but at the time it felt like one more way my life was being taken from me.

Now here I am 8 months pregnant and it turns out that losing control has been one of the best things that’s ever happened for my relationship with my body. I have felt freedom from self-criticism and self-hatred for the first time since I was ten years old and became aware of my body as female and of all the expectations that go along with that.

Some pregnant women are filled with love and appreciation for what their bodies are capable of as they move through the stages of pregnancy. And yes, it is miraculous. But for the most part, I have not felt this way. Most of the time I feel this odd combination of being intensely aware of everything going on in my body while also feeling like a stranger in it. I feel every ache and pain and jab and stab acutely, and at the same time I have the sense that I am floating around inside of this vessel I do not recognize, just waiting to get my life back. While this distance from my body has been isolating in some ways, it’s been healing in others.

Let me be clear. I have not particularly enjoyed pregnancy. I do not feel beautiful, sexy, or powerful the way some women seem to feel during pregnancy. I don’t particularly likethe way I look pregnant and I definitely don’t like the way I feel. But I’m also not disgusted by my body the way I was pre-pregnancy. I just honestly don’t care.

For the first time in my life, what is happening to my body is really and truly beyond my control. I could eat organic kale for every meal and workout twice a day and I would still going to have this giant belly. Since there is nothing I can do to change what my body looks like right now, I have no brain space or energy to waste worrying about it.

My expectations of my pregnant body are so vastly different from what my expectations of my body have always been. As an adolescent growing up with the mixture of societal pressures and the targeted messages of purity culture, I was constantly aware of the wrongnessof my body. There was the shame of not being attractive enough, along with the shame of being inappropriately attractive. I felt the expectation to simultaneously figure out how to be thin, toned, feminine perfection, and to dress in way that protected helpless men from that thin, toned, feminine perfection.

As I got older, I stripped off some of the burdens of purity culture, but struggled as my weight fluctuated and my self-worth rose and fell with the expansion or shrinking of my thighs.

Now for the first time, my attractiveness is utterly irrelevant. I take up more space than ever before. People are hyper-aware of me and my body. And at the same time, I have never felt more invisible. I feel no expectation, from myself or from anyone else, to be attractive. My body is no longer an aesthetic object, it is pure function. I am an incubator. That’s all.

Of course, I don’t want to feel this way forever. I don’t want “mother” to become my identity. I don’t want to disappear. I want to walk down the street and have someone think (but maybe not say) “Daaaaayummmmn, girl!” But there are also things I hope I take with me from this time.

I hope my base level expectations of my body have permanently changed. Instead of valuing myself based on arbitrary measures of attractiveness, I hope my foremost expectation of my body is for it to be healthy and strong so that I can do everything I need to do. No more. No less.

I want to feel attractive again someday, but I hope that feeling is based on confidence and acceptance, not meeting an external expectation. I think it can be incredibly attractive for someone to say, “My body is just my body. I look how I look.” If I can accept without difficulty the fact that I have blue eyes and small hands, could I also accept whatever shape my body ends up being when this ride is over?

I don’t know what to expect or how things will change post-partum, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated.  Whatever the next part of the journey looks like, I kind of hope that I’ll continue to be fresh out of effs to give.

Living in a Land of Protest: An Expat’s Take on the Hong Kong Protests

At 10 PM every night the shouting starts. The voices of men, women, and children mingle together in a passionate call and response. People lean from the windows of their flats or shout from where they are walking along the street. The courtyard below my apartment rings with cries that bounce from highrise to highrise and echo off the soft waves of the bay. 

For 10 minutes each night, the people of Hong Kong stop what they are doing and raise their voices together in a moving show of unity, chanting protest slogans like, “Reclaim Hong Kong: Revolution of our times!” I open my windows to hear it, and feel I am bearing witness to something intimate and holy.

This summer has been a season of upheaval for Hong Kong. In June, millions of Hong Kongers began a series of demonstrations to protest a proposed bill regarding the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China. (If you’d like more understanding of the background to this conflict, this video from Vox sums it up very clearly).

On the day of the first protest, my parents were visiting Hong Kong. We were all returning from a weekend trip to Cambodia and were not aware of the build-up to the protest. We arrived at the airport and learned that there were major traffic jams on Hong Kong Island. We took a taxi home and didn’t encounter any protest activity along the way. Later, we watched the footage online of what turned out to be a peaceful march of over a million people, including many families with children.

“Good for them,” I thought. I was inspired to see so many people joining a peaceful demonstration against what seemed to be a problematic policy. Like most Hong Kongers, I had no idea then that this was only the beginning. 

Over the last 13 weeks, protesters have continued to assemble for organized marches, rallies, and demonstrations every single weekend. Over these weeks, the situation has escalated, becoming quite violent at times as police have indiscriminately used tear gas, rubber bullets, and excessive physical force to try to control the situation. In response, protestors have grown angrier and more destructive, lighting fires and smashing windows. Many people’s faith in their government in general and in the trustworthiness of the police force specifically has been shaken. More than 1800 rounds of teargas have been deployed this summer, often in residential areas and several times (very dangerously) inside of MTR stations. 

Aside from the marches, there have been dozens of different protest activities designed to disrupt daily life in Hong Kong. Several targeted campaigns have caused disruption to the MTR and bus systems that Hong Kongers rely heavily on for transportation. Protest action at the airport successfully brought the eye of the international community to the situation in Hong Kong.  

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An example of a Hong Kong protest schedule

The protests are about the extradition bill, but they have also expanded into something much bigger. Ultimately they are a fight against perceived corruption in the government and the police force and against the steadily growing influence of mainland China on Hong Kong’s government, economy, and social structures. The protesters have declared their five demands:

  • The complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
  • The government to withdraw the use of the word “riot” in relation to protests
  • The unconditional release of arrested protesters and charges against them dropped
  • An independent inquiry into police behaviour
  • Implementation of genuine universal suffrage

The people are angry, and they are also determined, and they show no sign of backing down. Last weekend the police arrested several key protest leaders and denied the permit for a planned assembly. In response, thousands took to the streets all across the city in what turned out to be one of the most violent weekends so far. The city is splitting at the seams in constant conflict, not only between the protesters and the police, but between citizens who support the protesters and defend them and citizens who support Beijing and defend the police.

There are endless news stories you can read about these events and all of the various angles and opinions. I’m not a reporter and I am not equipped to talk about the political and social nuances of a government and a culture that are not my own. I can only talk about my experience. 

It’s strange, sometimes wonderfully so and sometimes frighteningly so, to be living in this city at this time in history. In some ways, these events affect my everyday life. I am alert to disturbances and spend most of my Sundays at home, not wanting to be caught in the crossfires of any conflicts between police and protesters which more and more often make their way into MTR stations and other public areas. 

There have been times when my commute to work was lengthened because the MTR service had been suspended. One morning I thought I would not make it to a doctor’s appointment because of wide-scale disruptions to the transportation system. An incredibly kind and generous couple offered me a ride even though it was out of their way. Last Saturday, my afternoon classes were cancelled and I went home early to avoid protest activity taking place near my work.

At the same time, I have not had to walk through tear gas to get home and I have not witnessed any violence. Most days I carry on with my life as normal. At 31 weeks pregnant, I am especially mindful of my safety for the sake of my little one. And yet, I am not afraid for myself. I continue to feel much safer in Hong Kong than I ever feel in the US. 

I honestly have no idea how this will resolve. Sometimes, I cannot imagine a way forward. What I know is this. I am moved, sometimes to tears by the hundreds of thousands of people who are risking their safety and their future to stand for what they believe in. Over 1,000 people have been arrested, some under rioting charges which can carry a ten year prison sentence. This is not a temper tantrum. These are people who are love their home and who love their people and are willing to risk great loss for the hope of a better future for themselves and for their children. 

I can’t help but wonder, have I ever held a belief so strongly that I would honestly risk my safety or my future to defend it? The largest march this summer had over 2 million participants. In a city of 7 million people, that is over ¼ of the population. Can you imagine of ¼ the population of the US cared deeply enough about something to take to the streets and raise their voices relentlessly until something changed?

There is so much injustice in the world, but what do I believe in passionately enough to act on and to keep acting on until something changes?

****

Just as I have finished writing this, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has announced her intention to move for the final withdrawal of the extradition bill. This still has to be voted on by the legislative council, but it is the first glimmer of any kind of concession from the government.

If social media is any indication, the response of protesters has mostly been, “Too little too late.” The streets continue to ring with the slogan, “Five demands, not one less!”

Do you hear the people sing?

Top 20 Reads of 2019 (So Far)

2019 has been a good reading year for me so far. I’ve finished 85 books so far this year and am hoping to finish 2 more by the end of August. I assume this will slow down significantly once I have a newborn, but for now I am making the time count.

I thought I’d share my top 20 picks out of what I’ve read so far. These are in no particular order. I’m experimenting with minimalist reviews/descriptions that hopefully give you a little taste of what each book is about.  Feel free to ask for more details if you want to know more about a particular pick! You can always follow me on Goodreads for more updates on what I’m reading.

Fiction

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Swamp girl makes her own way in a world where she will never fully belong. Set in South Carolina marshland. Very atmospheric.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. A young girl is pulled from the frozen river, dead, then alive. Multiple people try to claim her. Dreamy, lush, fairy-tale-esque. Set in a fictional world strongly resembling 18thcentury England.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray. The women of the Butler family band together to deal with a crisis when oldest sister and leader of the family, Althea, is sent to prison. Althea’s two sisters confront their own demons as they come together to care for Althea’s twin daughters.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Xiomara discovers slam poetry is a way to be seen and heard in a world not made for her. She grapples with her mother’s faith vs. what she believes. (Novel-in-verse. Great on audio).

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin. Pride and Prejudiceset in contemporary Canada with Muslim characters. More loosely adheres to the original storyline than other retellings, but with all of the elements that make the original great.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Orphaned twin brothers, products of an illicit union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon, grow up inseparable in Ethiopia until one day they are driven apart by war and by betrayal. Themes of identity, revolution, family, healing, relationship between doctors and patients, and the role of medicine.

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. One event links two neighboring families together forever. Tragedy, hope, and forgiveness are all entwined with the complexities of ordinary families and the sweetness of ordinary life.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Reid Jenkins. Oral history of a seventies rock band. Feels so real, you will find yourself trying to look up their songs on Spotify. Also, I can’t be the only one who was picturing Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper while reading this.

The Dragon Republic by R. F. Kuang. Second book in the Poppy Warsseries. Chinese history plus gods, monsters, and warriors.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Short, beautiful novel about 13-year-old Connor learning to deal with grief. Also there’s a storytelling monster.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. 1990’s Columbia. Contrast between a young girl in a wealthy, privileged family, and the girl who comes from the slums to work for them as a live-in maid. Pablo Escobar. Guerilla warfare. Violence. Connection. Coming of Age.

Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner. Criminal profiler helps catch serial killer. Inspired by the Ted Bundy case.  I heart serial killers. In a non-creepy way.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny. Chief Inspector Gamache is the definition of noble. Three strangers, an elderly woman’s baffling will, and a dead body.

Nonfiction

Land of Lost Borders by Kate Harris. Girl bikes the great silk road, pitching her tent in ditches or staying with random Uzbeki family yurts along the way. Seeking “to find an outer landscape as wild as she felt within.”

Becoming by Michelle Obama. Basially Michelle Obama is good people.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl. Food writing is glamorous. And also not. Ruth Reichl shares her experience as the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.

Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene. Man grapples with the senseless loss of his two-year-old daughter in a freak accident. Gut-wrenching expressions of raw grief, but ultimately hopeful.

Inspired by Rachel Held Owens. Deep love for Scripture plus a talent for storytelling equals a beautiful marriage of reverence for the text and earnest of exploration of what it means for us today. I had this on audio when I heard the news of her passing away and listening to her read it really made an impact.

The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah. Man buys crumbling mansion in Casablanca. Is faced with opinionated locals and angry Jinns (evil spirits of the Muslim world).

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. A therapist shares stories about therapy, from her experiences both as a professional and as a patient. Funny and fascinating. Made me briefly consider a new career in clinical psychology. Briefly.

A Letter to My Daughter: You’re Not the Best and Other Things I Hope to Teach You

People like to write sappy letters to their unborn children. It’s a thing. I get it. There’s something all mushy gushy about imagining your little person and all your hopes and dreams for them. I too have some hopes for my daughter. Mostly I hope she’s going to be a badass baller with a mane of red hair. But there are also some things I really hope to teach her. I decided to share them with you I guess so you can start judging my parenting skills before I even start parenting properly? Or something?

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Dear Daughter (who has a freaking awesome name that I can’t wait to use), 

These are some things I hope you learn from my words and actions in the next 18 or so years. 

You are important. And so is everyone else.

You are fantastically gifted. You are treasured. You are infinitely adored. AND you are an oh-so-tiny speck in a great big universe. 

What I’m trying to say is that the world does not revolve around you, Darling. We live in constant balance between our own wants and the needs and desires of the people in our families, our communities, and the world. 

We are so blessed to get to be a part of this big messy world. But we have a responsibility to God, to nature, and to the other humans we share this planet with to recognize that we are not the most important beings in the universe. 

I want you to grow to understand that each person you come into contact with is important and is loved, whether they know it or not. And because of that, they deserve your respect and compassion, just as you deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. 

You’re not the best at everything. And that’s OK. 

I promise that I will always be proud of your efforts in whatever you do. I will be proud when they end in triumph, and I will be proud when you put your heart into something and fail. You do not have to be the best to have done well. You only have to have given the best of yourself in the trying.

I will try to teach you how to be genuinely happy to see other people come alive doing what they are good at. Even if you suck at it. Especially if you suck at it. Because then you will understand how to love people well when they are not good at the things that come easily to you.

Mom and Dad love you enormously and unconditionally. But we love each other first.

We have a history. 12 years together before you even existed. You were created out of our love for each other (and also a little too much fun in Vietnam, but that’s another story). You don’t have to be jealous of the love we have for each other or the time we spend together. It is our love for each other that will help us to love you well.  

It’s OK to be sad.

Sometimes, Mom gets sad, but it’s not because of you. Sometimes it’s not because of anything. Sometimes you might feel sad and not even know why, and that’s ok.

Our brains and our emotions are weird. They don’t always communicate clearly. Sometimes the feelings come before the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes and the feelings show up behind schedule. Sometimes you just need to cry a little for no real reason. So cry.  And then take a deep breath, take a sip of water, blow your nose, and keep on going.

Lies are not cool.

From day one, one of my biggest goals as a mother is to never, ever lie to you.

Even if you ask about something difficult. Even if the answer isn’t what you want to hear. Even if the truth makes me look bad. Even if it means admitting that I just don’t know. 

I will not lie to you about how Santa gets around the world in one night or where babies come from or what it means to die. I hope that practicing radical honesty with you will help you to trust me and to extend that same level of honesty back and to know that nothing is off-limits. 

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And now, here are a few requests I have for you. Because it’s cool to put expectations on the unborn, right?

Try not to have stupid hobbies or interests. Please?

I hope you never feel constrained by the ridiculous notion that certain activities are gendered. There are no “girl things” or “boy things.” If you like playing with dolls, awesome. If you like catching frogs, also awesome. I hope as you grow that you will find yourself fascinated by things I’ve never even thought about. I want you to develop passions that challenge and inspire you. 

But for the love of goodness could you please not choose something stupid to put your heart into? Mostly I’m thinking of activities your parents will have to sacrifice all of their evenings and weekends to help you participate in while wanting to tear our own fingernails out. 

I mean, if cup stacking is what really, truly lights your fire, I will support you. But…I will also probably tell you that that’s an objectively stupid hobby. But like, nicely.

If it’s a dumb sport, you get a pass cause Dad and I made an arrangement a long time ago that if we ever had kids that were into dumb sports that would be his responsibility.

Please, please, please love books.

I’m just gonna say it, OK? If you don’t love books, we can’t be friends. 

Of course, I will still love you. I just won’t like you as much. 

Kidding. (Not kidding).

Just promise me you’ll try.

Love,

Mom