• It’s a beautiful day for reassurance

    It was a sunny August morning, and my husband, son and I were standing inside a giant dome-like structure in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What were we waiting for? Why a giant stuffed tiger dressed in a red zip-up sweater, of course! You may have heard of him. His name is Daniel Tiger, and we watched him and his fellow costumed character Katarina perform an adorable stage show at Storyland.

    After the performance, children could line up to take photos with the characters. As we waited in the line, an older man – looking like he would feel more at home at a biker bar than a children’s theme park – came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder, as my husband and son continued getting pictures taken with Daniel and friends.

    “I just wanted to say thank you for being such great parents,” the man said, smiling and then walking away.

    I turned back and looked at JB, who is now playing with and gazing in awe at Daniel Tiger. Tears started flowing down my cheeks, and I smiled. This was just another moment of reassurance made possible by Fred Rogers.

    Like most children in the 80s, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood every day. I learned how people make crayons, music can express feelings, and it’s okay to make mistakes. (I genuinely believe the episode where he shows the book with a typo in it instilled in me my love for proofreading!)

    I moved to Pittsburgh in 2010, and was dreading the transition. Pittsburgh had only four things going for it in my mind: My fiancé, my grad school, the Penguins, and Mister Rogers. (Technically he was from a suburb, Latrobe, but as an adult he relocated to Pittsburgh.)

    Living in Pittsburgh, it seemed everyone had some connection to Mister Rogers. I loved hearing the stories, each reiterating how humble and generous and compassionate he and his wife really were.

    While in grad school, I attended a citywide career fair for students looking at careers in journalism or communications. Imagine my surprise to find one of the speakers was the actor who played Mr. McFeely, David Newell. He was there to discuss careers in public television, obviously, but was also meeting with fans. I told him how I had reservations about moving from New England to Pittsburgh, but knew it couldn’t be that bad if Mister Rogers lived here. He spoke to me for several minutes reassuring me that everyone gets homesick, and I would make this city feel like home soon. I’ll always be grateful for that kindness.

    Mister Rogers’s effect on my parenting life

    The first song I ever sang to JB at the hospital when he was born was “It’s a Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood”. I still sing him that song, along with “You Are Special”, “It’s You I Like”, and my all-time favorite “When Your Heart Has Butterflies Inside It”. We watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – and now Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood – as a family, and my husband and I sometimes point out places we’ve visited, or our favorite locations in the city. “There’s the Trader Joe’s Mommy always visited on her way home from work!” “That’s Daddy’s barber!”

    When JB returned to school full time last fall, I was a nervous wreck. Would he catch COVID? Was I protecting him enough? One particularly stressful day, as my head filled with worries on the drive to school, a song started playing from the “JB playlist” we were listening to in the car:

    Be brave and then be strong
    Be brave. You’ll not go wrong if you are right
    Keep your chin up tight
    And be brave and then be strong

    Yup, out of all the songs on my phone, at that moment that specific Mister Rogers song played. Sure, it could be a coincidence. After all, JB’s playlist is mostly Mister Rogers and Raffi songs (with some Taylor Swift for good measure). But coincidence or fate or whatever, all I know is that song was exactly what I wanted to hear in that moment of self-doubt.

    This summer has been extremely difficult for me emotionally. Our family’s bout with COVID, JB starting kindergarten, and some other changes have really taken their toll on my spirits. So last month, when I saw JB happily interact with these characters based on Mister Rogers’s work, and then heard someone telling me I was doing a good job? Well, I really needed that. And I think somehow, somewhere, Mister Rogers knew that, too. All I had to do was look for the helpers.

    Favorite books about Mister Rogers

    I’ve acquired quite the collection of Mister Rogers-related books over the years. Here are some of my favorites:

    (Please note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.) 

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  • My favorite books of 2021 so far

    straw beach bag with books, a picnic blanket and a hat, spread out on a green lawn

    Affiliate links are used in this post. As an Amazon affiliate I may earn from qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

    Guys, I’m writing this from the library – THE LIBRARY! If that’s not a sign that things are returning to normal, than I don’t know what is!

    Anyway, today I’m going to be discussing books, specifically my five favorite books of 2021 so far. There’s quite a range of tones here, but honestly hasn’t this year been an emotional rollercoaster anyway? It makes sense that the books I’ve read would match (or counteract) that same unpredictability.

    Here are my favorite books from the first half of 2021.

    Favorite novel: Fire Keeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley (also available through Book of the Month

    Hockey. Suspense. YA romance. A socioeconomic examination of the opioid crisis on Native reservations in the early 2000s. While these may not all be genres/topics you are necessarily looking for in a book, the combination is what makes The Fire Keeper’s Daughter my favorite fiction read of 2021 so far. The plot is intricately woven and complicated, to say the least, but know three things. First, Daunis, the protagonist, is one of the strongest, best-written main characters I’ve encountered in years. Second, trigger warnings abound, so proceed with caution and do your research before reading if you have certain topics you need to avoid. And third, Barack and Michelle Obama will be adapting this book into a Netflix TV show!

    Favorite children’s book: What is God Like? by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner
    I spoke about this book a little bit a few weeks ago in my post about switching churches. I didn’t learn about Rachel Held Evans until after she died in 2019, but I wish I had known her. When she passed away, her friend Matthew Paul Turner (one of my favorite children’s book authors) was asked to finish this story she had started. This book they co-created is an incredible, inspiring celebration of the concept of God, especially for young children. Throughout the story, we meet characters of different ethnicities and races, a child with a wheelchair, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The story switches pronouns for God along the way – sometimes God is He, sometimes She, sometimes They. I love this book so very much, and if you are a friend of mine with a young child, I’m probably going to talk your ear off about this book at least once in the next few months!

    Favorite poetry book: What Kind of Woman by Kate Baer
    I’m as shocked as you are that I’m listing a poetry book here. I normally don’t “do” poetry. Heck, one of the main reasons I wasn’t an English major was that, despite my love of writing, I didn’t want to have to study poetry! Kate Baer’s work is different, however. Her poetry tackles motherhood, body image, feminism, mental health and more in a raw, powerful way. Her “Erasure” series of poems is my favorite. In these, she takes online comments she’s received and blacks out select words, using the words remaining to form uplifting messages out of the hate. Baer’s second book, I Hope This Finds You Well, comes out this fall, and I’ve already preordered it!

    Favorite nonfiction book: Getting It Done When You’re Depressed (Second Edition) by Julie A. Fast and John D. Preston (also available on Zulily)
    How much do I love this book? So much that I bought it twice, in e-book and paperback formats, so it’s always with me. I’m currently rereading it, and I’m getting even more out of it the second time around. The authors have an incredible talent for putting in words different aspects of depression that I always assumed were just my own unique weaknesses. I feel seen and understood in a way no other book has ever made me feel. My favorite feature of this book is that each chapter also has a script portion for you to share with loved ones when you are depressed and don’t know how to put your specific experience into words.

    Favorite cookbook: Everyday Dinners by Jessica Merchant
    Confession: I own the hardcover and e-book copies of this book, too. Jessica Merchant is the Pittsburgh-based founder of my favorite cooking blog, How Sweet Eats. In her latest cookbook, she focuses on easy weeknight meals that you can (but don’t have to) prep for in advance. Because let’s be real – I’m never going to prepare a week’s worth of meals on a Sunday. It just isn’t my style, although I admire all you folks who swear by it. Like Merchant, I would much rather preparing components of a meal here and there in pockets of free time throughout the week. So far, my favorite recipes are the Cajun-Lime Sweet Potato Salad and the Chicken Romano Meatballs. Seriously, I dream about both of these dishes. I’m planning on making several more recipes from this book over these next few days during the holiday weekend!

    What has your favorite book been so far in 2021? I’d love to hear from you! Also, if you want to expand your family’s summer reading selection, I’ll be sharing recommendations for young readers in the next week or two, including some FREE printables! (Admit it, you love free stuff!)

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  • Acknowledging what we’ve lost this past year

    I know it’s been quiet around here the past two months.

    I’ve had a million article ideas buzzing around in my mind, including:

    • A Dose of Awesome focused on recent TV/movie reboots I’m loving;
    • Post-vaccine life so far;
    • My husband and my decision to leave the Catholic Church;
    • JB is learning to ride a tricycle!

    I’m still going to address some of these topics in the coming weeks, but today I’m going to discuss something no one wants to have to talk about – grief. (It’s not very joyful, brave or awesome, but whatever.)

    My grandmother passed away two weeks ago. It’s still not sinking in yet; I told my husband it feels like I’m in a foggy alternate universe. I’ve spent the past few days going through the motions, but feeling completely exhausted and emotionally drained.

    I’ve inherited a lot from my grandmother – my eyes, my love of Nutella and Italian cheeses (not together, as that would be disgusting), my love of libraries and reading, and my impatience and inability to keep opinions to myself! I hope I’ve also inherited her strong will and sheer determination.

    For some weird reason, I usually don’t cry at funerals. Rather, I’m exactly like Robin Scherbatsky in How I Met Your Mother, with wisecracks and a Mary Poppins-esque purse full of vices, ready to help comfort others. (I cannot find a clip of this scene of the HIMYM episode Last Words but trust me, it is wonderful.) At my grandmother’s funeral, however, I couldn’t stop crying. I was upset because my grandmother was gone, yes, but it was more than that. I was grieving many things from the past year:

    • I hadn’t seen most of my family (my grandmother, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc.) since Christmas 2019, and I was upset this was how we were reunited.
    • I was bitter about how much has been taken from us  – all because world leaders were reckless and incompetent and didn’t take the pandemic seriously during the first days of its spreading.
    • I hated how much the pandemic has messed with my mental health. Sometimes I tell myself I don’t have the “right” to be depressed or anxious anymore because everyone else is, too. This just makes the distorted thoughts and negative thinking spiral further and further out of control.
    • I worried that JB would be forever scarred because he’s already attended two funerals in his four years.
    • I was infuriated – that between pews being “roped off” for social-distancing requirements and the layout of the church, we had to position JB’s wheelchair right near the casket.
    • I panicked about the millions of “what-ifs” regarding my son possibly catching COVID while inside the church.  I was so scared in fact, I had my husband leave with JB halfway through the service. Would this be my new normal, constantly anxious and vigilant that until JB is vaccinated, every person out there is a possible threat?

    It has taken me a week to write this post because I feel guilty complaining about these things when I know so many people in this world have faced far more over the past year. More than half a million lives have been lost in the U.S. alone due to COVID-19, and each of those people leaves behind people mourning their loss.

    If you – like me – are feeling overwhelmed by what you can do to help people get through a second year of this pandemic, I encourage you to view this list of donation opportunities from CNN. Sometimes, I feel like looking outside myself and helping others is the best way to help alleviate my own grief, as cheesy as that sounds.

    As Michael Gary Scott, the wise former Dunder Mifflin Regional Manager, Scranton Branch, once so eloquently put it:

    Society teaches us that having feelings and crying is bad and wrong. Well, that’s baloney, because grief isn’t wrong. There’s such a thing as good grief. Just ask Charlie Brown.

    What have you been grieving lately, COVID-related or otherwise?

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  • It’s okay to consider 2020 the bad guy (or what I learned leaving Pittsburgh)

    Six years ago this month, my husband and I finished loading our U-Haul and hightailed it out of Pittsburgh and back to New England.

    We had lived in Pittsburgh for several years after college. It was where Chris and I had our first home together, where he proposed, and where we adopted our little big-eared wonderdog, Colby.

    We left Pittsburgh on very bad terms. People we had thought of as dear friends screwed us over for their own professional gain, while other friends silently stood by, or shut us out of their lives completely. To this day, there are only a dozen or so people we still keep in contact with from our time in Pittsburgh.

    When we left the city, we had no idea what our future had in store for us. All of our plans were now completely shattered. Neither of us had jobs lined up in New England, and we would be staying with family until we could land on our feet. Those first few weeks in limbo were easily the worst time in my life. I can’t think too much about that period, as it’s still so painful. In fact, it’s taken these past six years to gather the courage to write about it even briefly.

    However, I have been looking back on our time in Pittsburgh before we were dealt that blow.

    It was pretty common knowledge that while living in Pittsburgh, I hated the city. I did not want to be there; it was not New England. I never expected to live there, and before moving there all I knew about it was it was where Topanga’s family moved, ripping her away from her true love, Cory, on Boy Meets World.

    Now, though, with some literal and figurative distance between the city and myself, I can appreciate the good parts of living there. I made incredible friends through my graduate school program at Duquesne University, and with my neighbors at our apartment complex. I became a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey fan, and met Sidney Crosby at the Whole Foods deli once – swoon. As an American Studies major and history minor, I loved the historical significance of the city. Most importantly, Pittsburgh was the home of Mister Rogers, a personal hero of mine, and a constant reminder that kindness and decency are still very real. (Get ready for at least one blog post about Mister Rogers in 2021!)

    So why am I sharing all this right now? Well, we are all coming up on the end of what seems like a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. It’s easy to blame it all on 2020, that abstract, convenient scapegoat that summarizes everything bad lately.

    I felt the same way about Pittsburgh a few years ago. I thought of the city as a whole, giant, evil entity that was at the root of every hardship we were facing at that moment.

    Did it help in the short term? You bet! I went through a good few years where I wouldn’t mention Pittsburgh without an F-bomb or two before it. It felt almost cathartic to hide all of my frustrations and fears under that general “villain” I created.

    But then, once things started improving here in New England – once I had a new career, and new friends, and had JB – I didn’t need Pittsburgh to be the bad guy anymore. I could admit that I missed certain aspects of life there – restaurants, museums, etc. Sometimes I miss it a lot, and think about going back to visit. Make no mistake, I still hate the decisions certain individuals made to hurt us during the end of our time in the city, but it was the actions of a small group, not the entire city. (Side note: I do, however, still blame the city of Pittsburgh for everything bad the Pearson Family has gone through thus far in the first 3.5 seasons of This is Us. I will not budge on this.)

    Back to 2020: It’s obviously not the entire year’s fault. But right now, I think we need to express our collective grief and fear in a way that’s easy and relatable. And yes, that makes 2020 the scapegoat. When we are in a better place, once the vaccine is more available and we are under more stable political leadership and our daily routines are able to return to normal-ish we will be able to learn from this chaos. We may even find one or two parts of this crazy quarantine life that we miss someday.

    So for now, keep those “F U 2020” Christmas ornaments, or make all the “Thank God it’s 2021” comments you want! There’s a time to be mature, and we will get there. But don’t worry if you aren’t there yet. Heck, maybe you’ll never entirely get to that point of acceptance and understanding. After all, lord knows I’m never going to be a Steelers fan!

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  • Where the heck have I been?

    I’ve been pretty quiet on the blog lately. I’d love to say it’s because I’ve been vacationing somewhere tropical, or traveling the country as a professional “90’s boy band trivia” expert. Alas, the real reason is not that exciting.

    I said from the start of this website that I’m not going to go into detail about JB’s diagnoses and health history, as that’s his story to tell (or not tell). But my story? I’m finally ready to share a bit of that.

    I’ve been dealing with my anxiety and depression these past few months.

    OK, technically I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression for more than half of my life. But lately, it has been a far greater struggle.

    I feel like most of the depictions of parents are one of two things: Either they are flawless superheroes, or they are ungrateful whiny monsters. However, I think most of us, at least in my experience, fall somewhere in the middle. We all have our own baggage from before becoming parents, and that doesn’t magically disappear the moment we become “Mom” or “Dad”.

    My mental health issues were not caused by becoming a parent. I want to make that clear. Certain factors – lack of sleep, isolation, transitions, time and financial constraints, hypervigilance, frequent medical uncertainty, etc. – have made existing issues harder to deal with on a daily basis, however.

    That’s where my amazing support system has come in. I am fortunate enough to have an incredible group of both loved ones and professionals looking out for me.

    I am relieved that there is far less of a stigma now than there was even a decade ago. Celebrities from Kristen Bell to Lizzo to Selena Gomez have publicly shared their experiences with depression and/or anxiety. Heck, this year’s Emmy for Outstanding Choreography in a Scripted Series went to a song-and-dance number from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend entitled “Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal!” (Side note: I miss this show so much.)

    I’m feeling “better” (which I define as “feeling more like myself”) now, but I know there’s still a ways to go. I’m nowhere near joyful, brave or awesome at the moment, but I’m sure trying.

    So why am I telling you all this today?

    Next week is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. (Sorry, Canada, I’m too late for yours!) The holidays are crazy stressful as it is; mental health issues or extenuating circumstances (loss of a loved one, change in employment, health crisis, etc.) can make this time even more challenging. If someone seems a little “off” during this time, give them the benefit of the doubt instead of talking about them behind their back when they go to grab seconds. They may be going through something – whether big or small.

    Little acts of kindness can go even further this time of year. Surprise the person behind you in the drive-thru by paying for their order. Send a funny .gif to your college roommate. Fill a teapot with sentimental stuff like a tiny pencil and a high school photo of yourself and give it to the receptionist at your Office. (Then again, do not do this. You are not Jim Halpert, and you never will be. Accept this.)

    Finally, I’m obviously not a medical expert of any kind. But if you aren’t feeling like yourself, please let someone know and ask for help. There are people out there who genuinely want to help.

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