The Middles.

By: Jen Shoop

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I’ve thought a lot about beginnings and endings over the years — how to accommodate transitions, how to adopt a growth mindset when I’m starting something new, how to commit to a new routine, how to say goodbye to seasons of life, how to shake hands with a blank page. As a writer, I expend a lot of editorial energy on first and last lines — especially the latter. I feel that conclusions need to resolve the nebula of my musings to a fine point, offering my readers something with shape that resonates beyond the caesura, sort of like a sentence with a fermata notation.

But what about the middles?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because some of the feedback I’ve gotten on Magpie over the years has been: “more behind the scenes!” and “more of you!,” requests that in large part shaped my new-ish “What I Loved Wearing This Week” and “Magpie Edit” series. These have been personal, fun-to-curate, and hopefully helpful (?) assortments of the tiny fibers of my intellectual, familial, and fashion lives as I live them daily. The prompt has also made me wonder about the middle of things. The unresolved, happening-right-now stuff of life. How to be present and receptive to it, how to abandon the need to organize the phenomena of living into categories and lessons and (for me) first and last lines. On a philosophical level, it is about being present and bearing witness. It is about channeling flow. It is about openness to joy but also acceptance of frustration, hardship, tedium, and other unpleasantnesses. Because truly, even as a writer focused on imposing a provisional structure on the raw experience of life, most of life is the middle.

Right now, at this very moment, I am in the middle of — two books (this and this); a running routine that has me jogging 3-4 miles every other day; a podcast on erotic thrillers of the 80s; a case of head lice in my daughter’s hair*; a hot water heater that is not working; the mapping out of after-school arrangements for our children this fall; the relabeling and reorganizing of my archive of essays; a shopping list for a happy hour we are hosting this Friday; the nailing down of airfare and accommodations for a trip to California wine country; the tail end (she says hopefully) of nearly two years of Invisalign treatment; preparations for the new school year; plans for the two weeks of camp-free time my children have this month; a phase in which my son is being particularly recalcitrant and picky about food; about four or five different essay concepts; the list goes on. Yes, when I think about it, a critical life skill is coping with the middles — the things half-done, the minds not-yet-made, the lapping irresolution of the present moment.

A propos: I am accepting that this musing will not deposit us in a neat set of strategies or takeaways. Instead, it will just point out that, for most of us, today is going to be a middle. And there are good things about middles, too: they imply constancy and the absence of disturbance and shock. They are the places we grow and heal. They are the normal days we one day will miss.

So onward, Magpies, into the middle —


*This is not our first rodeo with these pests. We have our protocols in place and have become borderline professional nit-pickers after hiring Lice Happens during the first outbreak, learning their ways, and buying professional-grade tools. I feel it is my maternal duty to let you know that the pesticide shampoos generally do not work, and that the presence of lice say nothing about your child’s hygiene — in fact, lice are more easily communicated when children have clean hair, as strands are easier for the bugs to cling to. Anyhow, the tried and true way to get rid of them is manual removal and you can only do this if you get a really good comb (the ones at CVS are laughably and troublingly ineffective) and this enzymatic foam, which dissolves the glue that binds the eggs to the strands of hair. This is all foul, I realize, but it is also a prime example of the “the middle” of life — the unglamorous but necessary things that fill our days and yet that we handle in absolute isolation. So if anyone is embroiled in her first-time encounter with lice, I know too well the absurd stress of it all, and I want to sit with you in the middle. I remember thinking: “I’ll never get them out! My daughter will never go back to school!” I recommend two things: hire a professional nit-picker (we really loved Lice Happens) and then buy the pro-grade materials. In fact, even if you don’t have a case on hand, you might do yourself a favor and order the pro-grade materials now — I think they strategically make the shipping slow so you’ll upgrade shipping to overnight because you are in a panic! Anyhow, now that we have the treatments, we’ve been able to successfully resolve the issue ourselves with minimal stress. The protocol we follow is thorough, and we continue to check hair with the foam/comb for a full week after discovering them, even if we’re finding nothing for a few days. During the school year, I also try to keep my daughter’s hair in braids (lice climb from head to head on loose strands — harder for them to get in there when hair is tightly braided) and use this rosemary repel spray (they hate the scent).

+On getting started with writing. (Also applies to other creative endeavors.)

+Getting out of a reading slump.

+In praise of getting dressed.

Shopping Break.

+Minnow is having one of its twice-a-year sales — this is one of my favorite childrenswear brands for both swim and everyday clothes. Hill’s swim trunk collection is almost exclusively Minnow and they are currently on sale for $28 in select patterns! In my cart: this swimsuit for myself (I’ve seen it on a few moms at the pool and it is seriously flattering) and this matching style for my daughter, as well as this precious striped sailor dress. Do I need the pajamas too?

+Random but Minnow’s sale also includes the yellow Naghedi tote I’ve carried all summer long!!!

+I’ve been testing this peptide serum the past few weeks and will write a thorough review in my next “Honest Beauty Review” installment, but wanted to say I cannot believe how effective it’s been at treating dark spots/hyperpigmentation. I’ve truly noticed a difference in a few weeks. I also think it leaves skin very smooth on the surface? Like the texture of my skin feels more even when I run my fingers over it. Really into it! My skincare regimen has admittedly ballooned a bit much. I now use a Vitamin C serum, a peptide serum, and then also Clarins’ Double Serum. But they achieve different things and I feel like it’s worth the time to apply this cocktail. The Vitamin C is like turning the lights on in my skin — it immediately looks brighter and more alive. The peptide serum is about surface / pigmentation / evenness (I don’t have an issue with redness but have heard this also combats redness). The double serum is about elasticity and hydration. It’s a lot but I’m happy with where I am right now!

+Two interesting pairs of pants (love the unexpected hues!): these and these.

+This dress is in my cart for a rehearsal dinner I’m attending.

+A great under-$100 sweater. Also DYING over this blanket coat (under $300!) from the same brand!

+I’ve always been obsessed with this pattern from Juliska. The cereal bowls in particular just make me think of a graceful, easy morning enjoying a granola bowl. If I could go back, I would register for this everyday china.

+I need a new belt bag. I’ve worn my State Bags one into the ground! I’m toggling between ordering Dagne Dover’s belt bag and their phone sling — my standard use case is that I’m walking Tilly or on a walk with a girlfriend and just need my phone, airpods, and key, so a full belt bag feels a bit much. Thoughts?

+I’ve been hearing good things about this foot peel. Intrigued after a summer of sandals!

+Veronica Beard has my NUMBER at the moment. I’d like everything from their fall collection. How sophisticated are this dress and these wide-leg jeans?

+Great inexpensive hand towels.

+LOVE a henley for fall/winter — hygge but make it sexy! These striped ones are fab!

+OBSESSED with this nubby little handbag.

+Funky little crochet style sweater for fall.

+La Ligne has the magical way of taking the most basic thing and making it cool. In this case, an upgraded white button down.

+If you are a new mama, you must try this sleep sack! It worked SO well with my son, who was a houdini with traditional swaddles and always wanted his hands up by his head.

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14 thoughts on “The Middles.

  1. I have the Dagne Dover belt bag in navy and it’s great — the only slight downside is that my keys are kind of bigger (mainly due to car key) and they just barely fit in the front zipper compartment. (I always want to keep them confined from my phone in case of scratches!) Otherwise, I love it, and I agree with Mia that darker colors in that material are easier to hide stains!


  2. Jen, thank you for normalizing the lice situation! I really appreciate all the tips here, and I’ll be ordering these products so we can be ready!

    Re: phone slings or belt bags: I LOVE my Dagne Dover phone sling. One caveat though since I know you like fun/bold colors: the lighter colored neoprene can stain quite easily from lotions, sunscreens, any oil-based products (then again, I’d imagine the dark colors would stain too with zinc oxide based sunscreens…). I have one in a dusty rose/mauve shade and I’ve tried all different stain removers, including the trusty dishwashing liquid. The other thing to consider is the size of your phone. I believe mine is a 12 Pro with a case and it JUST fits, so any larger than that would probably not work.

    1. Thank you for this tip/reminder! I know you’ve shared that before but I completely forgot! Gravitating towards green or navy then…


  3. Ah yes, the unglamorous middle…I’m currently in the middle of post-surgical hip PT, neither at the beginning nor close to the end. I’m back on my feet so I appear “recovered” to those I haven’t seen in a long time, but the fact of the matter is there are still a lot of things I can’t do, and if I can do them, not to the fullest extent. I struggle with how to respond when those people ask how I’m doing- I think they just want /expect to hear “better!” But it’s much more complicated than that. Some days good, some days less good. “Trending upwards” is the closest thing I have to a pithy response these days.

    1. I so feel for you – I remember feeling similarly when people asked how I was doing after my babies were born. I know they want to hear “we’re great / so happy / over the moon” but the truth was so much more complicated. I’m in pain! We haven’t figured out breastfeeding! I haven’t slept more than two consecutive hours in two weeks! Etc. I so feel you. I found it was easier to have a go-to response like you’ve defined (“trending upwards”) — I usually said, “we’re finding our footing” — to the casual passerby/acquaintance, and then I’d realllly open up with a handful of my inner circle.

      I was listening to a podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert the other day and she said she actively avoids the norm of “I’m doing great, how about you?” and will literally say, “I’m not great. I just lost my partner.” I’m sure it is a shock to the asker but at least the conversation goes somewhere/feels less performative!


  4. Ugh, I’m sorry about the lice. I remember my sister got it twice as a kid. It happens! But still, not fun. I am reminded of Francie in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, I believe her mother combed gasoline through her hair before sending her to school – ha! Thank you for sharing slightly more updated tools 😉

    It is so fascinating how some of the “in the middle” stuff of life can feel strangely isolating. E.g., I just spent a while working to get my son to see an Occupational Therapist. The waitlists are LONG, the insurance is questionable (as usual), and it was just a lot of work. And yet, it doesn’t really feel like an “update” yet, you know? We got on a schedule today (!) but still wait a bit before the eval. But it is an update—this is the work I’ve been doing to get the son the resources he needs, this is an important part of my life—it’s just not a flashy “after” photo. It’s not an “end result.” I think that’s where the loneliness comes in a little for me; thinking people only want the end result. So anyway, that’s why I shared this boring update with you. The middle matters too. 🙂 xoxoxo.

    1. Joyce! Oh gosh, I related to this (not boring!) life story so much. This is the stuff of motherhood, of life. The little, unremarkable things you do every day that often do not feel like progress at all. You should be patting yourself on the back for walking this long road to get to where you are! Tiny triumphs. Micro milestones. A mile is made up of inches, etc. I often just need/want to be seen in those tiny moments, or to at least have someone else listen to me talk about what’s happening. Thankfully, Landon is good about that, and my mom is always (mercifully!) willing to listen to me share the labyrinthine details of signing up for programs, ailments, logistics. Because I agree – the middle can feel so lonely. Sometimes I find myself asking, “What, no parent has ever had to do this before?! Why does no one talk about this!”

      Anyway, please share your middles any time!!! In this together!


  5. My sons are about to start school, and in the midst of worrying about everything, it now strikes me to worry about lice! Do you find that you have to be as vigilant with your son as you do your daughter? Buying all the products now, just in case!

    1. Hi Molly! Oh man, do I relate to this note. I was just telling a mom friend that I’m not ready to nose-dive back into the season of germs, bugs, viruses, etc (in other words – the school year). So what the Lice Happens experts told us was that lice find it difficult to thrive when hair is short (under 1″, you rarely find them) because they like the heat of layers of hair! They actually said that if you have a boy with lice, one solution is just shaving their head, or cropping their hair really short. Also much harder for lice to transfer to short hair — they usually climb onto loose, long strands!

      My daughter has had lice twice (sigh!) but my son never gets them!


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