This post has been stewing on the back burner for a very long time because it's hard for me to open up about.  November is not only the season of gratitude, but it is an anniversary for me - kind of the same thing though, actually. Three years ago this month, this story began…

I don't have any typical before and after pictures of my fitness journey.  You know the ones - in a bikini or sports bra. Mostly it's because it didn't start off as a weight loss thing.  I didn't really anticipate what this would become.  In the end, I think it's more quirkily 'me' that my before and after end up being in a parka!

In November of 2010 I was at one of the lowest points in my life physically.  I need to start with the medical stuff, because most fitness inspiration stories in the media make getting in shape a matter of willpower, when, in not only my case, but as I found throughout my journey, that of so many others, physical impairment challenges the 'just-eat-right-and-exercise' formula.

I had three main issues that took me to rock bottom.  The first is a condition I was born with - a genetic disorder called Joint Hyper-mobility Syndrome (JHMS).  I wasn't diagnosed until I was an adult.  As a child, I just thought it was cool that I had "Barbie legs," which is how I explained my knees that bent backwards to an extreme angle - just like the doll's in order to put her into her corvette! The basics of JHMS are that my ligaments are too loose all over my body.  There is a lot more to it, but that's the nutshell version.  What does it mean for me? Well, on the plus side, I'm very flexible.  I don't even feel a stretch touching my toes.  As long as I stay physically fit, my muscles keep the joints stable, and I'm mostly fine.  However, if I get out of shape - gain weight, stop exercising, lose muscle tone - I fall apart like a marionette.  Fall of 2010 I was pulling my shoulders out of their sockets just opening a car door or getting a jug of milk out of the fridge.  My knees would go out completely from under me going up or down stairs.  I was pretty fragile for looking so solid.

Secondly, I suffer from migraines.  Serious migraines.  Spots in my brain where blood-vessels have exploded due to the intensity of the pressure, borderline stroke migraines. Scary. And in the Fall of 2010, for some reason, the migraines were getting worse.  I started having them when I was only 13 years old, and had maybe one or two a month throughout my life.  But that Fall they kept piggybacking until I was having 6-8 a month with rebounds in between until I was in constant, terrible pain.

The last contributing medical issue was in the past, but still brought me to that critical point.  I had hyperemesis  with all of my pregnancies.  This is the condition where women get super sick the whole pregnancy and throw up everything.  I had to have IVs, and took anti-naseau meds given to chemo patients.  Still, I lost lots of weight with every pregnancy.  Only it wasn't a healthy weight loss.  Knowing now what I know about healthy lifestyle, I understand that every pregnancy was programming my body - from my fat cells to my metabolism - to store everything I eat.  It was a forced starvation diet, and repeating it 5 times over an 11 year period ensured that I'd be an excellent, high-efficiency fat storage machine.

So, put these together - my body storing fat and packing on pounds in preparation for another pregnancy that it couldn't understand wouldn't be coming - migraines that had increased and had debilitated me, rendering me almost sedentary (adding to the weight gain) - and my JHMS making me feel like I was falling apart (adding to the sedentary, adding to the weight gain), and I was rather a mess. I decided that the place to start had to be the migraines.  I wasn't having any more kids, so the pregnancy thing wasn't going to be an issue any more.  But the migraines had to go.  I've gone through a whole parade of doctors and physical therapists in search of headache answers, so I had no reason to believe this would be different, but I did my research, and I went to see Dr. Aduljee - the pre-eminent neurologist in the State.  His bedside manner made me nervous.  He didn't talk much.  In turn, I rambled.  And that was the key to success.  
In my ramblings he discovered two symptoms that no doctor had ever asked me about before - which I had never thought to be significant because no one had ever asked me about it before.  Turns out my migraines are in the epilepsy family.  I began treatment for epilepsy in September of that year.  October saw a host of nasty side effects.  And then November came.  Beautiful, golden November! It wasn't immediate, but the migraines definitely changed. Less frequent, less intense, fewer rebounds in between.  With more powerful instant response meds to manage onset, I was coming back to life!

The first thing I wanted to do was get in shape.  Not about weight loss initially, so much as not falling apart every time I tried to pick something up, I started going to a fitness class with a friend of mine.  I went a measly three times before I threw out my back painfully and devastatingly, just performing simple lunges. I had thought I was at rock bottom before, but this was a new low.  All I could do was lie flat on the floor, for several days, crying tears of frustration and anger.  I was not letting 5 kids, migraines and a busy life make excuses for me - I was TRYING! And yet my body only worked against me.  As I lay on the floor with my husband's laptop next to me and my daughter sitting on my stomach, I researched more than I ever had about JHMS.  I knew it made me more accident prone and at higher physical risk - but I didn't realize how many with the syndrome in circumstances very similar to mine ended up in wheelchairs by the age of 40!  This shocked me into action.  I was ready to do whatever it took.  And what it took was water.

Experts agree that water is the safest place for hyper mobiles.  I looked up local water aerobic classes and then balked.  This was new territory.  I had barely been able to carve out 20 min here and there to work out.  Water was such a time commitment.  Can't do it at home.  There's the WHOLE swimsuit problem.  I wasn't feeling great about my body. Then there's chlorine, and…and… and everyone needs a friend like Susan Fisk.  Right at that time Susan knew what I was going through and as I shared with her my findings about water aerobics she insisted we try some classes together.  That first class was a disaster!  We laughed more than we exercised, and I even ended up completely upside down at one point, but we kept going back.  And it worked.  I moved to the 5 AM classes for more consistency, and started going 6 days a week.  Susan moved on to training for a triathlon, which I was so proud of her for, and now she is on a completely different amazing adventure of a lifetime!  But I will always and forever be grateful that she was there at the exact perfect moment in my life to encourage me when I needed it.

Six days a week of water aerobics did the trick.  I was losing weight and feeling great!  I started eating better without making much of an effort at it.  I was just more interested in healthier foods.  My concept became, and still is, simply to eat in the purest form available.  Instead of apple flavored something - eat the apple.  Instead of potato chips, eat potatoes.  I know potatoes are a starch and some diets would
disapprove, but my goal isn't a body building competition - it's just healthy living.  And I like potatoes.  Whole grains, lots of veg & fruits. Pretty simple.

After a year, I had lost 40 lbs.  Most people think that water aerobics is for old people, but the great thing about water is that you get out of it what you put into it.  It resists you exactly the opposite of how hard you push.  So yes, most of my classes are wonderful older ladies who are able to gently work their muscles in an environment that is also easy on their joints.  But I can also hit it hard, work up a sweat, and work every muscle group in my body in a balanced way.  I love the water!  I warn you not to engage me in conversation on the topic because I have serious water aerobics obsession and once I get going about it, you'll hear about ALL the reasons it is a wonder exercise regimen.

I also started to want to see if I had toned enough to branch out a little and challenge gravity.  I started going to Zumba one day a week instead of water.  My first day in Zumba was so funny I came home and wrote about it - though I never published it.  I was the biggest two-left-footed dork ever.  It's unbelievable I went back.  It's my favorite day of the week now.

Then, exactly a year ago this month, I started a weights class.  I was terrified.  Remember when I said that I used to pull my shoulders out of their sockets taking milk out of the fridge? Yea, the idea of weights freaked me out.  But I needed to tone the muscles to protect the joints.  And I survived!  I made it through that first class.  (AND I made it through the next two days being too sore to move! OUCH!)  And I went back.  I've been lifting two days a week for a year now.  I love when my daughters point out my muscles!

Finally, about four months ago, I added yoga.  I was nervous to start yoga because I don't really need more flexibility.  In fact, I don't WANT more flexibility.  But an article I was reading talked about stabilizing joints through control and balance and recommended yoga.  I'm hooked.  If I could fit in more classes, I would.  I LOVE yoga!

I've tried spinning (hate, hate spinning - despite the awesome calorie burn), kick-boxing (SO much fun, but made my knees kill later), and swimming (oh, I'm terrible at establishing a breathing rhythm).  But I kind of like my little routine right now. Water aerobics, weights, yoga, zumba, weights, water aerobics. That's the week.

Until I hurt my upper back about a month ago.
Don't know how.  Something I pulled or pinched in weights class.  Played around with going back to the gym off and on, then finally just rested it for three weeks. And now my workout routine consists of rolling over to turn off the alarm and going back to sleep.  After 3 years of consistency, after over 60 lbs of weight loss, after research and self-diagnosis and feeling my way to my own happy, healthy me, where has my motivation gone?  I bluster around that "normal" people take it for granted that they can just exercise.  I love to run, for example, but it destroys my knees, hips, even my feet - because of the impact on loose joints.  Born with a competitive nature, I yearn to compete, to do a triathlon or a half-marathon - but jogging even 1K leaves me in misery and extended training could have long lasting consequences.  Everything inside me wants to push my limits - exercise hard, participate in extreme sports - but my marionette body betrays my spirit.
And now my spirit too seems to be lagging.
Hiking…without my knee brace!!
Motivation is a tricky thing to begin with.  They don't give out cool window stickers or make motivational "way to go" posters for daily hard work against great physical odds - only if your body lets you run the race.  I chuckle to myself whenever an instructor inspires us with "come on, you can do this! Think how you'll look in your skinny jeans!" or something similar.  Because my inspiration is more along the lines of "think of how much longer you'll stay out of that wheelchair!" Except I'm lying.  I tell myself that's what this is all about.  I want to think I'm above body image and I'm totally engaged in health aspects.  But I pin those workouts for flatter abs and a tighter butt too.  I want to feel like I'm at the gym for medical self-improvement not vanity, but I am angry and frustrated that I've plateaued 10-15 lbs from my goal weight for the last year for no explicable reason - and I'm as vain as anyone else.  And despite the feminist love-the-body-you-have side of my brain, my before and after pictures can't help but motivate me (even while looking at them makes me hypocritically self-critical.  Modern women are a mess!).

So here I am, at the three year anniversary of my fitness journey searching for a re-boot of my motivation - a revival of my willpower.  In essence, I'm writing this post for myself, to remind myself of my REAL motivation; that I am three years older, yet I feel younger, healthier and have more energy than I did then.  My migraines are managed - down to one every four to six weeks.  And I am beyond thankful for a life and a body that I never would have imagined possible then.  It is essential to look back on days that I get frustrated, like with my current annoyance with my minor back injury.  It is fine and healthy to remind my vanity of the before and after pictures (even if - or especially because -they're not in bikinis!).  It is good to remember that even though my body throws up roadblocks and frustrations, I have made progress before and I can and will keep on going.  And it's good to remember all the people along the way who have inspired me with their stories.  Because for all of my own issues, many of the great people I've met on my fitness journey have equally challenging difficulties, physical, emotional or otherwise in their own lives.  People are always stronger than they think they are.  November reminds me of that.
Yea, that's right, I'm long boarding. And I suck at it. But so what?

The Halloween section at the library is satisfyingly deep, however a quick inspection reveals a large amount of "Mickey's Halloween," "Barbie's Halloween," "Arthur's Halloween," etc, etc.  Of course the kids love to read about their favorite familiar characters and their antics, but if you're interested in more unique offerings, check out a few Hauntingly good reads, as reviewed by myself and my kids. This is by no means comprehensive, and there are many I'm DYING (hee hee) to still read, but these are some good, scary fun.

1- Creepy Carrots, by Aaron Reynolds 
     Pictures by Peter Brown
 I know, I know.  Rabbits and carrots are the realm of Easter, not Halloween.  But this tale of nightmare carrots, which would be great year-round, is also fantastic for Halloween.  Poor Jasper Rabbit is haunted by the creepiest carrots I've ever seen!  We love this one for the illustrations and for the humor.  I have to admit, I'm surprised it came out #1 on our Halloween list, but it is an irresistible read.
2 - Even Monsters Need Haircuts, by Matthew McElligott 
 Once a month, the young son of a barber plies his father's trade by the light of the full moon to an unusual clientele.  The illustrations are worth multiple readings, since you catch another delightful detail every time.  I think the reason the kids love it is that the child has no fear of creatures normally treated with trepidation by adults.  This is not beat over our heads with the message not to be afraid, but from the comfort level, almost authority the child barber has with these scary monsters, it is a comforting empowerment for kids.

3- Boris and Bella, by Carolyn Crimi 
     Illustrated by Gris Grimbly
 OK, so this one I have to say is probably my personal favorite this year.  Bella Legrossi is the messiest monster in Boovile, especially compared with Boris Kleanitoff, who is, well, pretty OCD.  It takes a rival Halloween party to show them what they have in common.  As much as I like children's literature, it's rare that I am completely satisfied by language and artistry both - and this book is simply delightful.  Witty, gorgeous, unique.  One caveat, the boys, in general, did not love this book as much as the girls did, so this may be a more gender skewed taste.

4- In a Dark, Dark Wood, by David A. Carter
It MUST be this version of the book, which is a pop-up at the end.  Honestly, I have no idea why the kids adore this book so much.  It does have lovely illustrations, but the repetition and lack of story make me shrug my shoulders in wonder as to the fascination. It has to be the same reason people love haunted houses because it has that same mystery at its core, wondering, always wondering.  In this book the reader slowly travels through the wood, to the house, through the house, to a scare at the end.  And I'm telling you, the kids love it.  We read it hundreds of times every Halloween.

5- Halloween, by Harry Behn 
     Illustrated by Greg Couch
So #5 was a tie, and I'm putting this one first because it's another of my personal favorites.  The illustrations in this book are breathtaking, and the poem that lilts throughout is hypnotic.  This isn't a very long or complicated book, but there is something about it that captures, in my emotions, the essence of Halloween night - especially those of my childhood. I feel I can hear the leaves and feel the crisp difference of being out at night in the autumn that made Halloween so full of magic.

5- Skeleton for Dinner, by Margery Cuyler 
     Illustrated by Will Terry
 Everyone enjoyed this clever book with its darling illustrations, but my youngest is particularly fond of it.  I keep finding it in her bed! Skeleton misunderstands the witches who plan to have "skeleton for dinner," and he runs away to avoid being cooked.  All's well that ends well, of course, and Skeleton finds that being had for dinner can  mean a lot of fun when you don't jump to conclusions.
6- Monster Needs a Costume, by Paul Czajak
It's not that Monster doesn't know what he wants to be for Halloween, he knows EXACTLY what he wants - so much that he wears it every second of every day...until he sees something else even better.  This book came late to our list, but it was worth the wait and unanimously made it high up on the list of favorites.  I'd put it on my parent top 3, just because it gave me the giggles.  Oh, how I recognized my little monsters in this adorable story! We are always suckers for rhyming stories, and coupled with bright and wonderful illustrations, this is a fun, non-scary Halloween read.

6- Skeleton Hiccups, by Margery Cuyler 
     Illustrated by S.D Schindler
 Poor Skeleton has the hiccups and can't get rid of them.  He tries every remedy he can think of.  What makes this book fun is watching a skeleton try to do things he can't anatomically do - and therefore the consequences are comic.  My kids are suckers for comedy.  Be prepared as a reader, however, there are lots of simulated hiccups to read here, and I have, on more than one occasion, given myself the hiccups while reading this book out loud to the kids.

7- Skeleton Meets the Mummy, by Steve Metzger 
     Illustrated by Aaron Zenz
 Starting out a bit like a Skeleton version of little Red Riding Hood, Sammy Skeleton's mom asks him to take some hot soup through the woods to his grandma.  But even Skeletons can get spooked in the woods when strange noises and then scary things start happening.  This is a cute little book with bold illustrations and a fun surprise.  The kids liked it, I thought it was just OK.
7-Spooky Riddles, by Marc Brown
So, they're actually not very spooky at all.  In fact, they're downright cheesy. But the kids giggle like they are the best jokes ever written.  And the sound of kids giggling is the best sound in the world!  We've had this book for years, so my kids have all the jokes memorized, and still they read it over and over - asking each other, "why do vampires drink blood?" "because root beer makes them burp!" and giggling and giggling...
8- One Witch, by Laura Leuck 
     Illustrations by S.D. Schindler
Creepy, in the best possible way, this rhyming counting book combines all the elements of a great Halloween.  

8- What was I scared of? by Dr. Seuss
A great read for any season, this one is particularly fun to pull out around Halloween.  Who doesn't remember those creepy pale green pants?  I admit, I have a soft spot in my heart for this one.  I went through a time in my childhood when I was obsessed with memorizing long poems, and this was one of the ones I memorized.  I was eleven years old.

9 - John Pig's Halloween, by Jan L. Waldron 
     Pictures by David McPhail
This adorable tale of the adventures of a little pig too scared to go out on Halloween, was recommended by a friend and we were so glad! It came very recently from the library, and I think it may move higher up the rankings with more reading, because it is just charming.  My kids noticed right away that the cadence is exactly the same as Twas the Night Before Christmas, when this is read aloud - and since that is a favorite of ours, this was an instant hit. 

10 - Shake dem Halloween Bones, by W. Nikola-Lisa 
       Illustrated by Mike Reed
 It's all about rhythm in this off-the-wall Halloween party book.  You've got to read it with sass and funk.  We have some maracas that come in handy too and the little ones love to shake them with all their might when we get to the chorus of "shake, shake."

11 - Zombie in Love, by Kelly DiPucchio
     Pictures by Scott Campbell
 Oh my goodness how I LOVE this crazy little book!  I have no idea how it ended up this far down on the list except that a few of my more sensitive children were "freaked out by the dog, Mommy."  True, the zombie dog's eye falling out is creepy, and the illustrations throughout are, well, morbid.  But they're ZOMBIES!  In an illustration style that is part picture book, part graphic novel, the book follows Mortimer, the lonely zombie, on his path of unrequited love.  Hilarious, sweet, fun, and just creepy enough for most audiences (my own kids prove there are some who won't appreciate it), I think this one is not just a Halloween story, but a tale for all year.  (It would be adorable for an off-beat Valentines!)

12 - Leonard the Terrible Monster, by Mo Willems
So this one isn't actually designated as "Halloween," but it was about a monster, so I picked it up. (Don't you LOVE the library?) I think the lack of Halloweenyness is why we get this one down here away from the top of the list, because this is a pretty cute book.  Leonard isn't good at being a monster, so he makes it his goal to do better.  In the process he learns to think for himself and to become a great friend.  A good moral about putting your own problems aside and helping others.

13 - Black and Bittern was Night, by Robert Heidbreder
     Illustrated by John Martz
THE most controversial of all the books we read this year! Two of my children rated this one in their top 3.  My husband LOVES this book.  My other children rated this one at the very bottom of their lists, dead last, and wrote "HATED!" next to the rating.  Whoa! Why such disparity of feeling? Imagine the poem "The Jabberwocky," with its nonsense words.  Now make it a whole book, and make it even a little more tongue-twister difficult and you get the style of this book.  My kids who hated it said they can't even understand what it's saying.  But if you stop trying to figure out every word and just listen, the sense of it becomes clear.  This one is extremely difficult to read aloud (my mouth feels like it has done aerobics when I'm done), but it MUST be read aloud to understand because some of the words are sound-alikes and you only get the meaning when you hear it.
Besides the story and language, the illustrations are unique, with tons to look at in quirky details.  Despite the vehemence of my negatively opinionated kids, I have to side with the ones who love this one - I think it's interesting and zany.  Just be ready for oral calisthenics reading it!
14 - Hallowilloween, by Calef Brown
My kids love poetry, so a book of silly Halloween poetry seemed right up their alley.  This one met with mixed reviews.  There are three poems they LOVED.  The rest they could take or leave.

15 - Crankenstein, by Samantha Berger
     Illustrated by Dan Santat
Gorgeous illustrations, this book is less of a story and more a series of vignettes depicting moments that turn normal kids into "Crankenstein."  I guess we kind of expected something more Halloween themed, which this is not at all.  I have one child who really, really liked this book a lot (she happens to be my moodiest child, so hey - maybe that's something if you have a kid who struggles with crankiness), but by and large the rest of the kids just found this to be ok.

Our ratings process was painful.  After multiple readings of all this years' books, I made each child rank the books from #1 to #19 (yep, we had 19 books in this year's harvest).  I did the same process myself.  It was TOUGH! There were so many I wanted to put as my #1 pick.  And it was very interesting that the older kids often ranked the books we've had for many years as their favorites.  Nostalgia is so important to holidays.  The younger kids were more open to the newer finds.  And I think if we did this all over again next year, the rankings would totally change. We had several ties, but for the sake of some sort of order, that's our list.

Future Halloween Reading List
(We had several titles that never came in at the library, plus some suggestions to add to our list.  So for my own memory, and for those who want even more Halloween reading, here are some recommended books we hope to read and review in the future)
Shadow, by Suzy Lee
Spookshow ABC, by Ryan Heshka
Big Pumpkin, by Erica Silverman
Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson 

Please add your recommendations and favorites to our list.  We love, love, love a good tale!

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