Family Work


“Have you ever asked what work your family is supposed to do together?”

It’s a question I came across this winter in Jennifer Fulwiler’s One Beautiful Dream as I recovered from a particularly nasty stomach bug. And sometimes, as on that day, the answer can be summed up succinctly: SURVIVE.

It was a striking question, because while I vacillate a lot about what work I’m supposed to do — tiny library job? pouring more of myself into writing? fully embracing this time at home? — I think I do have a sense of what our family is supposed to do together.Read More »

On Mentors

Emo photo of Willingham straight out of 2004

I attended Mercer University from 2004-8. It was an exciting time to be a student there, but maybe it’s always exciting to be an undergraduate. Beneath the heavy, humid stillness of Middle Georgia, the college was in upheaval, and discussion cropped up all over campus over what, exactly, it meant for the institution to be Southern Baptist, to be situated in that hazy, noble thing called the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I was a scrawny student watching from the sidelines, becoming increasingly vocal in our round table classes on Paradise Lost and Pascal and Jane Austen. But I was perhaps most captivated by the children’s literature class I took with a young and dynamic professor, Anya Silver.Read More »

Dear College Student

A few years ago, I was walking on a New England college campus in spring and came upon a cherry tree in blossom which, upon closer examination, was decked out in tiny paper cranes. It was striking for its senselessness and beauty, two characteristics closely associated, in my mind at least, with college.

Now, as I drive through a college campus on a cold Tuesday morning in spring, I’m confronted by students who seem hardly present, just going through the motions. These students slump along, eyes on their phones, carelessly decked out in workout wear, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.

And let me tell you: college is for many things, but most of all, college is for caring. Read More »

My Books of 2016

Total: 42. (I might knock out a couple more in the last couple weeks, but I’m calling it as of 12/11.)

You can see them all here. I’m kind of cheating to include ones like Catwingswhich are like thirty seconds long, but on the other hand, I’ve slogged through some real behemoths. (Shouldn’t Brothers Karamazov count as more than one book?!)


  • Audiobooks. Audiobooks while running, audiobooks while cleaning, audiobooks getting ready in the morning. So grateful for those opportunities.
  • MG with Pippin: In the last few months Pippin’s powers of attention to long stories have really taken off, and he loves to have me read aloud to him as he zooms a truck along beside me on the couch. It’s (unsurprisingly) one of my favorite things to do with him. We start many more than we finish, but when he hits on a book he loves — Henry HugginsLittle House on the Prairie — he begs for the next chapter unceasingly.
  • The endless Throne of Glass series. Thanks, Maddy!

Favorite fiction:

  • The Lake House (Kate Morton) — almost as good as The Secret Keepermy favorite of hers. Her books are always atmospheric and kind of moody and beautiful, and the best have plots that broadside me, but have a rightness. (I want to say “lushly romantic”…but that descriptor kind of embarrasses me.)
  • Helena (Evelyn Waugh) — maybe my third or fourth Waugh, and the first I’ve liked. The plotting and language are kind of disconcerting, but at the kernel is this idea: that one decision can define you, that one fiat can set you down in legend.
  • The Precious One (Marisa de los Santos) — I recommended this to a friend who said reading it was like listening to me talk, that it was just so essentially me. All I can say is I loved it: funny and quirky with vivid characters and places you want to visit yourself and lots of sweet moments.

Favorite nonfiction:

(You can catch up on previous years on ye old tumblr.)

What book was the best to come out of your reading for this year?




Grad Season

It’s that time, bittersweet from the inside, a little ridiculous on the outside. Driving through downtown, there’s a pack of college girls trailing a photographer, each wearing a matching flower crown. At the front of campus, a girl in platforms steps gingerly as she positions herself for photos in a picturesque clump of tulips. The restaurants are crowded with raucous college students.

We’re in the end of the school year homestretch.

I remember that nervous energy, that exhausted relief, the giddy excitement and intolerable sadness. Walking across campus and trying to soak it all in, turning in last papers, the Middle Georgia humidity hanging above our heads like a curtain about to fall. For me, May 2008 was an especially bittersweet time: I was leaving the college I loved and two weeks later, marrying the boy I’d loved for five years. I didn’t want to leave; I couldn’t wait to go.

Life doesn’t have those set definitions, the concrete end points, anymore, as I walk the park in a drizzle that feels too cold for May, even up here in Virginia. Grown up life, after undergrad, is different. Library school, for me at least, was kind of a thing I did in my spare time until I didn’t have to do it anymore, passed alongside people who all finished at their own pace. My last three jobs sort of petered out with the arrival of each of my kids. In this most recent move, I didn’t know I was waking up to my last sunrise over those ridiculously beautiful mountains until we decided to nip Pip’s anxiety in the bud and moved to the new house that very night.

That’s the way it works, in Grown Up Land. You won’t know the last day before you’re pregnant, or the last day before your baby comes, until in hindsight. Endings mostly sneak up without fanfare.

Watching those 22-year-olds crossing items off their bucket lists, snapping memento shots, I live that strange May month all over again, with all its sadness and anticipation. There’s such beauty and ache in knowing something is your last time. I’m not sure I’d want it back.


No fancy photo session needed: some of my most beloved Mercerians (and J the interloper) celebrating the end of college at the Otis Redding statue
Some of the same girls with me in Tallahassee two weeks later, for the start of a new chapter

Motherhood and the Redemption of the Body

As for me, I will read while you boulder, silly people, circa 2007.

When I was in college, I was your proverbial brain in a jar. I read and wrote all day, and grew cold on the sofa of my 80 degree studio apartment, sipping microwaved tea to warm my sedentary bones. Almost all my memories of the time are cerebral: the excitement of defending Milton’s Adam to a classroom of Satan sympathizers, the frustration of my first crack at Nicomachean Ethics.

In fact, the only real exceptions are a.) sitting outside on a warm spring day to do my reading in the cherry blossoms and b.) the terrible tension headaches that plagued me throughout college, especially my underclassman years. (Also the college cafeteria ice cream bar.)

As a stay at home mother now, I struggle to find space for the cerebral, slipping in an audiobook with chores, carving out time for a book club, writing letters to basically anyone who will write me back. On the other hand, though, in a very real sense, my babies have helped me transcend the brain-vat, into the life of the body. I feel healthier, and more whole, though I miss that dear, unbalanced, brainy old life.

A rare pregnant day on which I did not throw up; second trimester, Dales Way, circa 2012

This wasn’t a given, going into motherhood. Pregnancy is a series of unpleasant sensations for me, and while I am indeed much more aware of my embodiedness as waves of nausea engulf me, it’s far from a pleasant experience. Give me the life of the mind any day!

So my babies surprised me. Their physical need for me — and, unexpected by me — my physical need for them. So much of my experience of motherhood, so much of my current day to day life, is centered on the body: the press of a soft, marshmallowy cheek against mine; the relief and relaxation of sleepy night nursing; a toddler making my hair “beautiful” while I pray he doesn’t get the hairbrush stuck. Now that I’m no longer cramped in the same tense position, hour upon hour, but instead constantly interrupted, my headaches have faded to the background.

And then there’s the rhythm of housework, of course. A critical eye cast to the texture of the brownie dough, when once I’d only scrounged the cafeteria. The realization that about 60% of housework is moving material objects from one room to the other.

I fall asleep at night more readily, most nights, the soft breathing of my sleeping babies in the rooms beside me. My body is squishier, but also softer, stretched and sore from lifting fifty pounds of progeny all day, from a long nap time on my feet fussing over dinner, from the weight of milk I carry.

I’d failed to realize, back then, that in giving my children their bodies, they’d give me mine.

Mi body es su body, or something like that.