Lovely Living, On Writing, Out of Doors, This Quiet Place

Going Dark: Autumn Update + Thoughts on Writing and Horror

autumn-walk-10-21-16-34Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat.

Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows I watch. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches.)

I walked through the small woods in my backyard. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hoped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for the men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.
I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

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It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.
I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

CURRENTLY
Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again)
Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2
Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later)
Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.

Bookshelf, Journey to Health, Lovely Living

Life Lately: Getting Back to the Joy of It All

1115“Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I’d sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully.” The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer

These past four or five months have not been bad months, but they’ve been busy months, and busy is hard for me. Each week has been stuffed with work commitments, and weekly appointments, and friends and family, and I-didn’t-know-that-was-coming, and I’ve looked up again and again and said “I need some rest.”

I prefer to move at a slower pace, keeping open wide swaths of time for the people and pursuits I love best. I’ve heard this called creating margin—opening up time and energy around the unshakable commitments of life to make room for more rest, more joy. While I hesitate to call these margins a “need,” because they’re a luxury afforded to me by age and life-stage and privilege, I do know I struggle when my margins disappear.

This spring wound me tight. So tight I began to fray at the edges. I made myself overworked and overtired and overstressed. I came to the end of my days, and I let myself collapse ointo a heap on the couch. I forwent cooking one meal, then another, then another, and I slowly traded a robust reading and writing rhythm for eleven and a half seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. (Y’all, this show has NO business being on its twelfth season). I isolated myself even more than I usually do until I was only seeing people at pre-appointed times. I filled up every blank minute with some form of distraction, because it feels so much easier passively take than actively create.

I built up all these bad habits, and my body responded. Sleep deteriorated, and as my sugar and caffeine intakes rose, my body and mind both became sluggish. I was perpetually not sick, but not well. Then, a month ago, I began breaking out in hives and eczema, and last week, after a nerve-wracking (and expensive) trip to the ER, I learned that I have costochondritis and pericarditis—both painful, but non-threatening swellings inside my body.

I’m like a car badly in need of an oil change. Not broken, but I’ve gone just a little too long without taking proper care. I’m working on taking proper care now.

I use this space to document the “working through it” of it. The figuring it all out, as vague as that it. Now that work is promising to ease up a bit, and the temperatures are above freezing, I’m working my way through this little pile-up back to the joy of it all.

1113I’m doing that by getting back on top of my reading game. When I don’t read enough, I feel unbalanced, like I’ve left the house with only one shoe one. After a series of false starts and bad reads (who knew I would dislike The Sun Also Rises so much), I did what I haven’t done in months and had myself a little party trip to the book store. I picked up a few thrillers, and devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in days. I’m currently in the middle of the gorgeous Seating Arrangements. I’ve plunged back into my Granta Book of the American Short Story, and am trying to pick apart the genius of this hard, hard art form. I said last week that I understand the world through stories, and my goodness, it feel good to be back with them.

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Connected to the uptick in reading, I’m also going back to what inspires me so that I can make an easier time of my slow crawl back to a daily writing habit. For me, this means giving myself time to consume and time to think. I’m keeping the TV off, and as best I can, my phone away.

I reread this sad, strange, surreal story about a man who removed himself from the world for nearly thirty years. I’m pouring over the photographs from a recent visit to the Grand Canyon (more on that later—it’s been a month, and my soul still hasn’t settled). I’m doing what I heard another artist talk about, and using photographs as jumping off points for the stories I want to tell.

After the announcement of their 16 Tony nominations, I also gave Hamilton another go, and it all clicked together in a way it hasn’t before. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack over and over, not only because the music is good (it is) or the story is interesting (it is), but because Hamilton is an extraordinary example of what I find most phenomenal and worthy about artwork. At its core, art is the reworking and reimagining and retelling of our oldest stories so that the beautiful, radical, essential humanity of them is clear. Hamilton does this (and with history, no less!), and it’s blasted open the doors of my own shuttered creativity.

Side note: If you’re not already, start listening. It’s a dancing, rapping, race-bending bio-musical about the man who founded the National Treasury, was at the center of America’s first sex scandal, and was killed in a duel by the Vice President. If that doesn’t get you excited, I’m not sure what will.

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I’m turning my attention to food, trying to both follow the Michal Pollan food rules (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants), and rediscover the joy of creating meals. In response to the skin irritations and the swelling, I spent hours pouring over cookbooks and food blogs, looking for recipes that were low in sugar and dairy and high in vegetables. I’m mixing up what I buy, and what I eat, and trying to reorient my perspective around food so I see it as a source of energy and a gift, but not as a bandage or a salve. My goal is to make and eat food that’s good, real, and energizing, not to create a rulebook around what I “should” or “shouldn’t” and “can” or “can’t” eat. A few recipes from my May meal plan: broccoli melts, oatmeal blueberry breakfast bars, spring fettuccine primavera, and artichoke ricotta flatbread (with goat cheese instead of ricotta, and homemade pizza dough).

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There’s something slow and spectacular in keeping pace with only ourselves.

Journey to Health, Overcoming, The Anxiety Files

A Body of Belonging: Image, Self Worth, and the Cruelty I Deal to Myself

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On Thursday morning, I woke up, and before I’d even finished dressing, I made myself cry.

You’re fat. You’re ugly. Your jeans do not fit, and that tee-shirt was made for a smaller woman. Everyone will see this.

I caught my reflection in the mirror while I was dressing, and without a hint of hesitation, I gave myself this articulate dose of abuse before I’d even brushed my hair.

Hot, shamed tears came spilling down my face as if I’d been insulted by someone outside of my own mind, and for the next thirty minutes, I fussed with my appearance, trying to make style my reflection into something that voice in my head wouldn’t insult. I repeated these words to myself, you really do look like a potato, maybe if you curl your hair, people won’t notice it. No? Try tucking the shirt in. It still won’t look good on you, but you’ll have at least done what you can.

My worth is tangled up with my pant size, my beauty thrown in with my weight. I’ve had these all confused for years now, since early in my girlhood, really, but I’m in an especially cruel cycle of self-loathing right now. I stand in front of the mirror, and I pull at my flesh, tally it as evidence that I am notskinny, and because I am notskinny, I am less. I see the way that my body continually changes, shifts, morphs, and I hurl abuse and obscenities at it. I tether myself to the tyranny of something — the scale, the pant size, the softness of my flesh — and in doing so, I tear myself to pieces. I break myself down in tiny, compromising ways until my heart starts to look like what I’m chasing for my body — Less.

I was far, far too young when I decided that my body was, if not an outright enemy, a thing to be feared and controlled.

For reference, I’m a conventionally small woman. I’ve been roughly the same size since I was 10 years old: 5 feet, 4 inches, somewhere between 120 and 140 pounds, long legs, short torso, a soft layer on top of developed (read: big) muscles. As a child, that mean I was massive, but as an adult, it means I’m shockingly average.

As a young girl, I was was tall. This is one of my earliest perceptions of my body. Tall. And being tall meant something good, something exciting. I saw my height as a gift, specifically given by the women in my dad’s family. They too were tall. My aunt, my girl cousins. Together we were tall, and when I made school-house friends with two other tall girls, I was proud of my tribe. Tall girls. We could see farther and reach higher. We took up more space than our peers, and when you’re little, being big makes you feel strong.

For a long time, I liked my body. Or not such much liked it as didn’t notice it. My mom rocked body positivity (although I don’t think we called it that in the ‘90s), and when I heard my elementary-age peers mimic their own mothers and complain about wide hips or milk with fat in it, I told them they were stupid. In third grade, I watched a friend throw away three of her five chicken nuggets, because she was “dieting” to stay “right at fifty.” The next day, I loaned her my girl power/changing body book, and told her to read the chapter about anorexia and bulimia. In my head, she was stupid, and I was strong, and even though I wasn’t allowed to eat school hot lunches (waste.of.money, my mom reminded me), I knew that no person should ever diet, especially not an eight year old girl who weighed as much as I’d weighed as a healthy toddler.

My body was my tool, my toy, my vehicle. It was my mountain hiker, my tree climber, my soccer player. In my body, I camped, and I climbed, I read and I wrote. It housed all my excitement, all my wonder, all my fears, and all my dreams. It was me, and I had no concept of war with myself. How could I split Torrie from Torrie’s body, they were one in the same. One whole piece.

I hurts me, now, to think about how soon after the chicken nugget episode that I began to turn on my own body. That summer, I was harassed by boys for the first time — teenagers from down the road yelled something lewd and indistinguishable to me while I played in my driveway. When I heard them yell, and realized it was at me, I ran scared into my garage, confused and overwhelmed. I attended a birthday party that involved swimming, and for the first time, I realize that my body was somehow different than my peers. I saw them, with their straight, flat planes of girlhood, and compared it with my own topography of soft swells and ripples. This was the first time I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, and I remember trying to use the water to hide my grown-up form from my much smaller friends.

In increments, I learned to regard my body with increasing shame and suspicion. I stopped being proud of my height, and began to understand myself as burly. Hulking. I learned how to do that thing that every girl at one point learns — where you stack your arms, one on top of the other, and wrap your arms around your stomach, hands curling over you waist and hips — to hide a stomach that had taken on a soft layer years before my peers. The visceral memory I have is of a girl trying to retreat, trying to pull back into her small. While my female peers began blossoming, each at their own rate, I continued to see other girls through a lens of envy and shame. I became used to, but not comfortable with, being the tallest, thickest girl in the room, and if other girls my age struggled with their own bodies, I never knew, so buried underneath my own nascent insecurities.

At the same time, I was also diving into words. I read with a new kind of voraciousness, sought out learning wherever I could. I begin writing the way I imagined adult writers wrote, and, once summer, I even wrote a 300 + page behemoth of a first “novel.” I didn’t have many friends, and the ones I did have didn’t often call. I kept myself from lonely by building words inside my own head. As I grew confident and proud of my brain, of how I could think and communicate and create, I, I wish I could have understood that those were all functions of the same body I was disassociating from, all part of the same team.

My parents, in a move that was ultimately loving and, surprisingly, not shaming, encouraged me to begin exercising. I spent the summer before high school learning about how protein fills you up, and cardio strengthens your heart. I didn’t track my weight or my calories or my measurements, but I began to regain some of the joy I once felt about my body. I became stronger, more confident, and mid-way through high school, I ended my fatwa on sports, and joined the Track and Field team. I was a sprinter (who ran exceedingly slowly), and while I added nothing quantifiable to the team, I learned about how much my body could do. How strong it could be. Some of the softness I’d accumulated melted away, and while I didn’t realize this until the mother of a friend complimented me on “my new hard body,” I did like that I became less aware of my body. It felt like a miracle, a few months later, when I saw myself in the mirror with two other girlfriends that we all looked remarkably the same.

I continued to be active, joining the Cross Country team and proving to myself that I could run an entire mile without dying. Not just that, but I could run two, three, four, seven miles without dying. (I didn’t push myself any farther. I still believe that running a full eight miles without stopping would kill if not my body, definitely my soul).

I was confident, yes, more comfortable, yes, proud, again, of my body and it’s abilities, but I never fully became unified with it. I never learned to love it. I continued to have flesh ripple out where I didn’t want, and continued to pluck at skin and call it excess. I amassed an arsenal of mean girl tricks I could play on myself: comparison and jealousy and magazine cover envy. Every few months, I discovered a new part of my body that could be wrong, and developed corresponding anxieties. After school sports were replaced by an after-school job (one that boasted a perk of constant bread and butter, if I wanted it). High school ended, and I slipped deeper into the anxious depression that would cripple me in the spring of my freshmen year of college. I was increasingly less active, increasingly more sedentary. My emotions flared uneven, and I isolated myself. My body continued to shift and change, and while I remained objectively slim, every few months, I added a couple more pounds onto my frame.

My body remained a thing of discomfort. It betrayed me in dressing rooms when the clothing designed for teenagers and young women couldn’t accommodate my body, and the clothing designed for adult women made me look ten, fifteen times older than I was. It shamed me when strange men used it as an opening to yell filth and degradation from sidewalks. It remained a symbol of my non-belonging, so whenever I was in social setting that made me uncomfortable or anxious, I would slip back into the same confused shame that I associate with being the only twelve year old that needed to wear a real bra. I learn how to manage my mental health, and graduated, and got a real job, and learn how to be a writer. I now lose and gain the same five to ten pounds, and although my clothing hangs when I’m on one end of the spectrum and strains when I’m on the other, I look essentially the same.

I have entrenched myself into a sick, repeating cycle of love and hatred that feeds on the fit of my jeans and the number on a scale, and what is maybe the worst part, is that I am not alone. I’ve just told the world’s most boring story: Twenty-first century woman is uncomfortable with her body. I am violent and abusive with myself. I let my own brain produce chatter that would turn me apocalyptic and vengeful if someone else said it to me outloud. My worth is dictated by the level of disgust I feel at my own form, even though I know the body science of water retention and food digestion and general, basic, healthy fluctuations. I eat chocolate, then condemn myself. Pull fistfuls of flesh away from my bones, and offer them up as fat. I do what I did on Thursday morning, and whip myself vicious over a body that is healthy and happy, if maybe a few pounds in excess. I have not an ounce of kindness on days that I’m feeling “fat,” and when I feel pretty, confident, at peace or even happy with my body, I allow myself only the slightest nod of approval.

I break myself to pieces, and it hurts. It hurts every time I tell myself I can never eat sugar again, because there’s an inch or two of grabbable flesh around my middle. I scrawl vitriol across my body — too thick, too wide, not flat, too much giggle, not enough definition — and whenever I hear someone try to care for me in the way that I’m not letting myself, I brush them off, tune them out, give them reasons why they’re wrong.

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This body is a home. I’m realizing this slowly, and only in pieces. I live inside this flesh, and each cruel word I attach to it is a scar. It’s a mark of ugly anger, of rejection and hatred. I am tired of rejecting myself.

Three times, I’ve let needles scar ink into my skin. My foot, my wrist, and my shoulder. Together, they are strength, brokenness, wonder, and home. Each it’s own direction, it’s own invective. I have them all purposefully, permanently in my skin, because I want my body to be a record. I want it to be a testament of strength, a capsule of celebration, a record of beauty. A home that holds the wear and care and deep, deliberate embrace of a rich, undulating life.

This body cannot bear the weight of my own cruelty. Not if I also want to embrace the overwhelming fullness of this life

You are within yourself one person, and I want you to be whole. I want you to be whole no matter how you thicken and swell, droop and fade, as you invariably will. I want your body to be a place of strength, and of peace.

A place where you belong.

Bookshelf, On Writing, Storyteller

All the Books: What I Read in 2015

BooksBooks2015 was a strange and interesting year of reading for me. I’ve always, always been an avid reader–even in college, when my peers were loath to even look at another page of writing, I continued to seek out books as both an escape and a lifeline. Except for one lonely, bored summer, reading, and reading a fair amount, has always been a given for me, but this year, I started to feel something new happening in my literary diet.

I still can’t quite put my finger on what was happening–or why–but here’s what I did that felt so different: I finished books I didn’t particularly like. I re-read to understand either myself or the text in a deeper way, not simply to burrow into comfort. I read in a wider variety of formats–essays, short stories, memoir, non-fiction. I pushed passed my own literary snobbery, and let myself read what was interesting + what was on my shelf. I finally read a few of those must-read books that I buy and keep unopened on myself because they intimidate me. I also bought books–largely from second-hand stores–at a vicious and unreserved clip, always reasoning that, for a dollar, it can’t hurt to try.

 

As I look back on all the books that I read, it’s clear that I was seeking to re-define how + why I read. I read to remain alive and to remain awake, to find clarity, to soften my heart to in-real-life people I meet, to make me a better writer. I read (and write) because telling stories is both the solution and the mystery, the lock and the key.

So here’s a snapshot of all that I read in the past year.

  1. Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx: This book thought too much of itself. Proulx radicalized me to the power of the novel when I read The Shipping News at fifteen–I didn’t know that you could do what she did to language, didn’t know you could tell the story that she told. Maybe it’s because I expected the universe of this book, or maybe because that’s what she tried to deliver, but by the time I finished this book, it had demanded all my respect and none of my affection. She charts the story of one accordion, and that, at least, is a fascinating and complex narrative to tell.
  2. The Awakening, Kate Chopin: I seem to return to this book ever three or four years. Each reading and a new layer of mastery and beauty unveils itself. It’s a slim, masterful hurricane, and for everyone who read it in high school and forgot about it, do yourself a favor and READ IT AGAIN.
  3. The Best Yes, Lysa TerKeurst: This book had a few good practical tips on how to prioritize–how to say “no” so that you can say “yes” to your “best yes.” It’s also a fog of privilege, simplicity, and yay-rah-rah. A blog post would have sufficed.
  4. California: A History, Kevin Starr: California is fascinating, and if you need to learn about the state (as I wanted to for my second-novel-project), read Kevin Starr.
  5. The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Every summer, I read “must-read” book, and this year it was the The Color Purple. I won’t say too much, because me telling you that this book is good, fantastic, beautiful and human and devastating and hopeful, is to say what everyone else has already been saying for the past 30 years.
  6. Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan: Another fog of privilege which, I realize, is the point of the plot, but I was disappointed. I picked it on the review that Kwan was the Edith Wharton of twenty first century China. To me, it read like a beach book. A good one, but no Age of Innocence.
  7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson: I went to Chicago for our two year anniversary, and I read this while were there. With Martin Scorsese + Leonardo DiCaprio turning this story into a movie, there is and will continue to be hype upon hype, but what fascinated me the most was how true Larson’s assertion that the 1893 World’s Fair changed the world. If nothing else, this was the fair that introduced America to PBR. (And all the hipsters when ahh).
  8. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert: Another audiobook. The perfect companion for 600+ miles of driving, and so engaging. I did find some of the things that were said about this book (fog of privilege, self-indulgent) to be true, but she woke up, changed her life, then wrote about it with a praiseworthy degree of vulnerability–and that is brave.
  9. The Forgotten GardenKate Morton: I read a different Kate Morton book, The Distant Hours, a few years back, and loved it. Female protagonists, Gothic houses + and their secrets, WWII, and quick story. Then I read this, and realized that it was the same book (with a less interesting backdrop) than the earlier one. A bit canned, but Morton knows how to move a story, and that is something I need to know more about.
  10. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin: This was a reread, and it was the book that taught me that not all books are meant to be re-read. My entire life, I’ve been happy to return the same stories again and again, for both comfort and learning reasons, but this was the first book that I returned to fully expecting something big and was let down. I read the whole series a few years back–burned through them–and I picked up book 1 expecting to get thrown back into the drama and thrall. I wasn’t. For me, this kind of heavily plot-driven, heavily-fantastical book is only good one time. (The show however, I’ll watch again and again and again).
  11. The Green Mile, Stephen King: My first Stephen King, and I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t love reading a serialized novel in the format of a traditional novel–the necessary repetitions irritated me to no end. Plus, I have a feeling that Stephen King is supposed to be some kind of scary/creep you, so in 2016, I’m going to give Dolores Claiborne a go.
  12. Harry Potter, 1-7, J.K. Rowling: These were also rereads, but never have have they disappointed. I very much grew up with Harry Potter, my mother reading them to be before Prisoner of Azkaban was released. When cancer consumed my grandmother, and her care consumed my mother, I reread Harry Potter on a loop. I was eight, and these books were both comfort and explanation for the pain and mystery of death. When anxiety wrenched me from myself, I clung to these books as a raft. This summer, I reread for pleasure, not for catharsis, and I learned. Because the stories are tattooed onto me, I was able to pay attention, instead, to how Rowling wrote them, how she moved the plot, how she wrote her dialogue, how she build her characters. Then when I finished them, I wept, and said that no other books are worth reading. Par for the course.
  13. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova: This book soured pretty quickly after I finished it. I loved Dracula, and wrote several lengthy term papers on it in college, and my love of Stoker’s novel propelled me through this one. While I loved reading a massive novel dedicated to the detailed analysis of primary sources, in the end, Kostova pulled out far too many threads and didn’t tie them up neatly enough, which is especially disappointing in a novel as long as this one was).
  14. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson: This was, without competition, the best book I read all year, and easily one of the best I’ve ever read in my lifetime. It was nominated for the Pulitzer for a reason. Go read it.
  15. Loving Day, Mat Johnson: This was another book that I read based upon a review, and was disappointed in. After 300 pages in Warren Duffy’s head, I just wanted out. That being said, it was a phenomenal and fascinating look into the experience of being bi-racial. Johnson has been vocal about bi-racial identity being both marginalized and misunderstood, and this novel felt like it was doing important work of excavating and illuminating what it mean to be bi-racial in a highly-radicalized America.
  16. Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True Life Novel, Fred Setterberg: Meh. I read it for research, because it is set in the type of suburb I’m writing about. Beyond that…
  17. The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich: Again, meh. It was quick and enjoyable, but nothing to write home about. (Except that it was my mother’s book, so I had to discuss if she also felt iffy about it).
  18. Night Over Water, Ken Follett: Chauvinist. Every woman in this book was clearly in idealized version of what Follett wants women to be (read: charmingly sparky, but ultimately submission, with giant breasts). I read to the end to find out what happens, then immediately stuck it in the give-away pile.
  19. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: Although a few books on my summer reading list went unread, I am so glad I made it a priority to return to this book. I get it now: the appeal, the human, the romance. Jane Austen is a master, and I should have never doubted her most beloved work.
  20. The Queen’s Fool, Philippa Gregory: I read She’s Come Undone and Wild within a two week window, and I was so electrified by the stories + writing in both that I found myself needing a break from all the greatness. This book happily coincides with a weekend getaway, and there’s something really indulgent about a reading something not-too-deep on vacation.
  21. She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb: See both note above and previous post on this book. I loved it.
  22. Something Happened, Joseph Heller: Second best book I read all year. I was assigned this text in my last semester of college, and although I wrote two essays (for two separate classes) on it, I never actually finished it. Reading this book is what I imagine riding a bull is like–you grab on, and hold on as tight as you can for as long as you can, except in this case, you absolutely should get to the very end. It works as both a historical snapshot of a particular moment in America’s history (post-war, post-baby-boom, pre-summer of love, pre-hippie burnout), and an incredibly comprehensive character study. I would not recommend this to many people, because it is so hard to read (700 pages inside one man’s head + paragraphs that can go on for pages), but it is so worth it if you get to the end.
  23. Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe: The last audiobook I listened to this year, and again, it was a companion for a very long drive. I put this on my summer reading list, expecting a good celebrity memoir–some inner-circle gossip, the hard work and good luck it (often) takes to get famous, rounded off with some on-set stories about the West Wing. I got all that, and so much more. Rob Lowe has the gift of being both emotionally vulnerable and deeply straightforward. If you’re a Rob Lowe fan, read this. If you’re a memoir fan, read this. If you’re interested in a good story, read this.
  24. Volt, Alan Heathcock: The only full short story collection I read. It was electrifying (no pun intended). I read this as I was editing my own short story for publication, and it helped get the job done. It was also an intense, interesting, deeply compelling series of interconnected stories. It took me four years to read this book, and I am so.glad that I finally did.
  25. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen: Another in a series of disappointing books. I had this on my shelf for years–such a good book, everyone said–and I just couldn’t get it up. It felt flat and stale, and for the last third of the book, I was only reading to finish.
  26. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed: There’s a reason why this book jumped onto the NYT Bestseller book in its first week and why Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights before it was published. Strayed is such the darling and titan of the literary world that there’s not much I can add, except that this book was so powerful. (Plus, my father-in-law knew her and her family well when she was a little girl, which is easily my coolest seven-degrees-of separation story).

I also read a whole landslide of short stories (and had one of my own published!), too many too track down and name individually.

All new year, all new books! What about you, what did you read in 2015? What are you planning to read in 2016?

California Novel, On Writing

On Writing Into the Unknown

DeathtoStock_NotStock2Last time I posted, I wrote about hitting “pause” on my first novel to pursue a new one. In the intervening time, I’ve written roughly 15,000 words (reason one why there has been quiet on this blog).

15,000 words feels immense, a whole ocean of language where I thought I only had raindrops. And I’m grateful for that, immensely glad that images have come to me and that scenes have bloomed up in my creative darkness.

But what I’m writing is hard. It’s stretching me.

I tried explaining this the other day: After nearly 10 years with the same characters growing up and revealing their voice, character, appearance, habits and mannerisms, it’s strange and stunted work to try to get to know new characters. The entire setting of my first novel was a fictionalization version of a real life town, real life house, real life land. One that I’d grown up with, and one that was tattooed onto my heart.

Now, I’m writing in California, in 1962. I have nothing about a few memories from childhood trips to San Diego and Los Angeles, and research. (I’m researching voraciously. Studying images and photographs, reading novels written during or set in my new space and time. Checking out dozens of books from the library at a time).

I once heard a pastor I like talk about progressive growth. He talked about being single, and feeling like he was great at being in that stage of life. Then he got married, and all that expertise he thought he had on life was out the window. And just when he started to feel like a pro at being married, he had kids. Unknowns and uncertainties and inexperiences compounding upon one another with each new step away from comfortable.

That’s how writing this novel feels. I figured out what it meant to write the story that makes up my first novel. Yes, there were (and still are) aspects of that work that would be difficult and daunting were I to pick it back up, but I knew where I was, what I was doing. It didn’t start comfortable, but by the end of September, when I officially packed it up, it had become a writerly second skin, something I slid into so easily.

And now! I have all new characters, a whole new setting, and one that I’m not naturally familiar with. I’m also experimenting with a child’s voice, using the eyes and experience of a young girl to explore confusion and fear and non-understanding. The smallness of a child’s world is an exercise in restraint. What do children see? How do they see it? What do they know and how do they know what they don’t know? It’s a good reason to pay attention to children, and to remember my own childhood. But because I’ve refrained from reading what I’ve written so far, I don’t know how well it’s working in my writing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but writing something new, something so unknown and in need of so much research, is a flood of fears. That I’m really too young to be attempting this level of emotional and narrative complexity. That it’s junk, that it’ll require slash-and-burn editing. That I will eventually have to hit “pause” on this too, and my computer will become a graveyard of failures. That I’m wasting precious time writing distinctly non-precious words.

I am fighting to counter these fears. These first 15,000 words probably are junk, and will absolutely need slash-and-burn editing, but what first draft doesn’t? I probably am too young and inexperienced for this level of complexity, but how else will I grow up? And why should ease ever be my goal? I may have to hit pause. It may take me two, three, four, fives tries to write something beautiful and shareable. It may take me double that number of drafts to get this novel into something beautiful.

And as far as time goes, whose time am I wasting? Whose timetables am I following or failing? If I’m writing to write, and I’m doing the writing, what is there to be anxious about?

If the first novel taught me anything, it was to just show up. To set a goal and to meet it. To care about production over perfection. (Perfect is the enemy of done). To find the joy in the words and in the characters and not in my own (and this world’s) ever shifting versions of success.

I feel a little all over the place here, but I write to understand, to process. I  hit my first blank-page fears this week. That choking tension of having something to say, and feeling so overwhelmed by the idea of saying it.

I’m naming all these fears and countering them, because I need to hold onto them as I write into the unknown. That writing is my passion project, and it’s a part of my heart, but it’s not the whole thing. That challenges are necessary to grow, and I could what-if myself into faux-panic if I tried hard enough. And that on most days, it’s the writing (along with a healthy combination of other factors) that keeps the real life panic at bay.

At the end of the day, I’m writing novels under an all but unpublished name. Nobody but me (and maybe my father) is waiting for my writing. My writing is a joy, and it should never be so damn serious.

Bruised Land, California Novel, On Writing, Storyteller

When The Magic Moves: Putting Away My First Novel for A Second

FullSizeRenderYesterday I put away my first novel.

Packed up the printed drafts that I work off. Collected all the scraps, post-its, note cards, ideas scribbled on the back of receipts. I folded up the timeline and scene lists. I emptied the table I work on, and I arranged the entire life of my novel in a folder, and before I closed it, I cried for a few minutes. Said goodbye to my characters, to the world they’d been living in (the world I’d been living in). And I closed the folder. Put it on a shelf.

Literally, physically, viscerally put away my first novel.

I wrote the first lines—the first of only two things that have remained constant through this story’s different incarnations—nine years ago, in the back of my parents Volkswagen bus. I was fourteen. It would take me five more years of writing in fits and starts about this girl, Ana, before I started the Word document that would, eventually, become the first manuscript of my first novel.

This story followed me through high school, through college, through the first years of my adulthood. This novel was my writer’s rebirth. It was the rediscovery of my first love after I began to think I wouldn’t be a writer in my adulthood. It taught me small things, like how to use the Oxford comma correctly and what keystrokes turn formatting into automatic habit, and it laid the foundation for my written life.

This novel taught me about writing and rewriting, and about shitty first drafts and how all “all writing is rewriting.” It taught me to show up on the page, to force difficult characters forward, to write above all else. To not shy away from death or unlikable women. To be okay with the mess of creation.

This novel, which was never truly given a name, though it was called everything from “She Breathed Deeply” to “Overland” to “The Thing I’m Writing (?),” gave more to me than I gave to it, and I never expected thought I would put it away. Especially not when it was still unfinished.

I’m calling this “pausing,” not “quitting” my novel. Not because quitting sounds ugly, but because I don’t know if I’m done with this story or these characters. All I know is that I need time. I need a break. I need a new start. I’ve become the girlfriend who speaks in cliques, who needs to start seeing new people. My first novel has become the first love who gave me the courage to go out into the world.

When It's Time to Quit

The decision to pause my first novel has been months in the making. At the start of the third draft (i.e. third full rewrite) this spring, I found myself paralyzed, unsure whose story I was telling. In any given scene, the perspective shifts between characters—I try to tell everyone’s story and can’t commit to anyone’s. I re-read the whole manuscript again, wrote narrative synopsis and character sketches, but still couldn’t figure out my story.

Is it the story of the family—everyone gets their share of the narrator pie—or is it the story of one girl? Do I have to make my other, equally beloved characters shut-up so Ana can take center-stage? If they are quiet, will she talk?

As I struggled with these questions, the work involved with reorganized the complicated, epically messy timeline became overwhelming. In the face of it, I turned away from the still not-started rewrite to write a short story. Then a second one, then a third. When I started writing a fourth short story in as many months, I realized I was practicing a highly productive form of procrastinating on my novel. I soldiered up and went back to it. More duty than love.

Still not started on the act of re-writing, I began reading articles about when it’s time to quit, give up, move on. Lots of “quitters are lazy,” “quitters aren’t writers,” “you never quit, you only finish.” Then I read this, about a novelist’s first novel, scrapped for something worth writing. Then a writer friend talked (emailed) to me about her decision NOT to quit her novel. I began to realize that this could be an option.

I could move on. If it was really time.DeathtoStock_Clementine6

I think most writers have that vague “next novel” lingering somewhere behind all the detritus of their current novel. For a while I’ve had two ideas. Each unformed, unstructured. Interesting, but not important. Diversions that I jot down a new note about every few months. They each had a Word document on my laptop, but they never held more than unfinished sentences and question marks.

Vietnam War? Brother in Vietnam? Male (maybe female? Not sure?). Girlfriend writes letters. Girlfriend breaks up with him. No girlfriend? Sister named Alice. Check out [book, documentary, historical document, newspaper article, etc.].

As I grappled with my First Novel (it became a capitalized thing), I had a scene idea for one of the two “next-novel-ideas” that I wrote down and expected to file it away. Then I had another idea. I bought a notebook to capture these details. Kept telling myself that I was working on the third draft of my First Novel. That I could turn to this Next Novel only when I finished my First Novel.

I read about a gruesome, 1959 murder, and during my long commutes, I started to think about domestic violence and California. I found this podcast, and listened to twelve episodes on Charles Manson. I thought about the West Coast and how houses hold onto their memories. How people can be shaped by what they don’t understand.

I began to think about characters, and one afternoon, three of them came to me. Each with a name.

It’s hard to ignore a person with a full name.

Yesterday, I put away my First Novel and this morning, I typed out the first eight pages of my next.

Part of me does feel like I quit my First Novel too soon, for all my calling it a “pause.” Another part of me feels like a sham for calling my stories novels at all, because in my head, a novel is only validated when it is purchased by someone else. (Cousin to the popular lie that a writer is only a writer after they’ve been published).

The louder part of me is excited. Electrified. I’ve found a new story, and it’s on me. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I wonder if this is why. I’ve shut off the television to research a state I am not familiar with and an era I don’t live in.

I am barely comfortable admitting that I’m “on a break” with my first novel, and I am intimidated as hell by what I’m taking on with the next. All the fears I’ve ever had about writing are converging—what will I do if it’s another disaster, if it’s hard, if it loses its magic, if it’s never finished, if it’s never published, if I’m never published—but there is that thrill. It’s going to take me a while—maybe months—to get the feel for the place, to really hear my character, to find writerly momentum, but right now, it’s all magic.   Dark butterflies and fireworks.

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It’s this kind of coast that’s taking hold of my imagination.
Lovely Living, The Work of Becoming

Work + Wonder: What I Want From My Twenties

Woman Under TreeLast week, I turned twenty-three, and I feel time, maybe for the first time, pressing itself against me.

When I was a child, time terrified me. I agonized about growing up, and in the dark, I wept, thinking that someday I’d be older. When I turned thirteen, I went with my family to a house party that my uncle and his band played at. He sang happy birthday for me, and I hid, because being thirteen meant I’d be a teenager, and being a teenager meant I was closer to a still unknown adulthood. Even though time was my specter, the hooded thief, I never felt comfortable in my years. I wanted the weight of experience without experiencing passed time.

I feel the weight of twenty-three lived years, and I feel how little this is, how light these years really are. My youngness, my inexperience, my newness and next to it, my experiences, failures, circumstances and decisions, the rawness of being alive.

As I move forward into my twenty-fourth year (it took a birthday card from my dad to correctly understand this math), I am thinking about this time in front of me, specifically thinking about my twenties. This decade is mythologized— at least it seems that way right now. There’s a massive literature this collective, cultural imagination, and according to about 90% of it, I’m doing it all wrong. I settled quickly, took a job that turned into a career three weeks after I graduated. I am paying down debt in massive, shattering chunks, and deferring our wild desire to travel until we’re responsibly able to afford it. I’m building my wardrobe from clearance racks and Goodwill, and I won’t lay down big money on that one great handbag (which, I truly believe, is a mythical object).

Instead of looking at what I want to do, I am looking at what I want to gain, what I want to invest in and take away from my twenties. (It’s a short list).

What I want  is work and wonder.Work BikeWork, because I have a lot of it to do.

Recently, I listened to an episode of the Longform podcast that featured an interview with Cheryl Strayed. The ever-quotable writer said something that I stuck with me (and with every other writer who listened to the episode): “I didn’t just get lucky. I worked my fucking ass off. And then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky. You have to do the work. You always have to do the work.”

This is my work: The pouring of myself and the full force of my humanity into my writing.

The reality is, no matter how many hours I put in or how many pages I write, there’s a chance that my writing will never be seen, and it’s a near statistical guarantee that I’ll never get lucky (at least not 800,000 copies of my memoir sold + a Hollywood movie deal lucky). Coming to grips with that is a constant struggle— some days, all I care about is the writing, other days, the idea of never reaching publication makes my blood cold— but no matter how I’m feeling, I know that I want to work my ass off. I want to do the work, so that if I never get published, I’ll know it’s not for lack of trying, and if I do get published, I’ll know that I worked hard enough to be proud of it.

photo-1434145175661-472d90344c15The other thing I want to invest myself in, give my time and energy and love to, is wonder. I really believe that the ability to experience awe is one of the greatest gifts that humanity has been given. The ability to stand before reverence, and know that the world is big. That it’s beautiful, and it’s mysterious, and despite this you, small you, have been given the chance to see it, to feel it.

It’s easy to lose the wonder, and it’s just as easy to not see it when it’s there. When I was a girl, I loved dew in the morning, thought it was magic, thought each drop was placed there by fairies, thought it was a gift given straight to those who woke up early. I remember one morning in southeastern Minnesota, when my mother and I went for a walk just after the sun had spilled over the horizon. To our east was red and pink and purple, fire in the sky, and to the west was pearled dawn being chased away. I stopped at the top of the hill and watched as dew drops slid down the stem of prairie grasses, shimmying the whole plant and landing in a cup where the grass blade slip off from its stem. Inside every single dew drop, I saw the glory of the world, that sunrise coming up over us, over the mid-summer soybeans, over the undulating hills that glaciers hadn’t razed. It made me cry, and then, I couldn’t understand why, but now, I know that it was wonder, encompassing, enfolding awe at the smallness and largeness of incomprehensible beauty.

I need to feel that, feel the wonder. I need to have my breath taken away, and my notions of beauty laid flat, and I need to feel both small and big, bowled over by the world and yet beautifully apart of it. It makes me a better writer, and much more importantly, it makes me a better person.

I finished The Color Purple yesterday, and as I read the last few pages, I wept. Albert says to Celie, “I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.” 

And it makes me think about my own heart. The more I ask, the more I see, the more experience, the more I do, the bigger I grow, the smaller I get.

Time is still a friend to me. While I know it’s precious, I am young enough to still feel it as endless. Every new year, every new season, I feel its passing more acutely, can see it draping itself on those I love, can see wasting hours piling up. I have no interested in a checklist, in doing for the sake of doing, because I’m a certain age or because a certain blog says so. I want to do my two w’s, work and wonder. It’s these I want to throw myself, sink myself into, because time is passing me quickly, and while I have it, I want to use it well.

Storyteller, The Work of Becoming

What Followed Us Out: My Parents’ Memories and My Own

Sparkler
This has been happening more frequently in the past few years. When afternoons that I’m with my family stretch long, we—my parents, my brother and I—turn to reminiscing. Yesterday, it happened on the deck that my dad built with my uncle. The shadows were lengthening, wreaking havoc on their shadow-chasing dog. When we do start sharing memories, collectively we only have about an inch of perspective. I’m young enough that I can still feel childhood in my bones, and my parents are far, far from the age where memories turn cloudy and sentimental.

It’s interesting what happens when we start sharing what followed us.

Our memories warp themselves with time. with experience, and with the inevitability fallibility of our chemistry. My parents and I line up our warpings, and try to decide which is truer. I can remember them reading books they can’t remember reading. They try to remember when it was that they went tubing on the Apple River—was that before kids or was it with kids? Was Dad with?

What they remember my dad working and working and working. They were young, with young kids, and the on-call hours for an electrical lineman were good. My dad could work whole weeks of overtime stacked on top of whole weeks of regular work, and still spring back. (Although I remember him falling asleep face-down on the floor when he came home to play with us. We climbed on him, drove trucks over him, played with him still while he slept). My mom remembers tucking kids in to bed alone, and not being able to talk to her husband when he was called out to relight what storms and wind and malfunction had blown out. With pain, they remember their far that all we’d remember of our dad was him working.

I remember our dad coming home. I remember the playing on the floor, and the climbing all around him, and the giggling at where he fell asleep, when he fell asleep. I remember him being home from dinner, and I remember thinking that when my dad was at work, he was building substations, that he’d built every substation in the territory, (because once, he’d shown us one that he had built).

I remember a severe storm that blew our power, and created lakes between our house and the neighbors. We hid under the basement stairs—Aaron with all his books stacked smallest to largest—until the sirens stopped. Then we all went outside. The storm had turned out neighborhood into a battle zone—the wind and the rain and the lightening at war with everything that thought it should remain on the ground. Neighbors were out too, and the adults talked, and compared damage, and we all listened quiet to an explosion that came from somewhere else.

Dad was already working, and because this was before cell phones, we didn’t know where he was. It was well past bedtime, but my mom had packed Aaron and I into our car seats and booster chairs to bring us down to the station, to ask company dispatch where exactly he was, confirm for us that he was safe.

Then he came home with a truck so big it shook the ground when it idled, and this is what I remember—hearing the truck and feeling its tremors and knowing, before I could see it, that it was our dad. He came home to tell us he was safe, and tell us that he’d still be working, and probably to say something to mom that would help her get through another night, another day of single parenting.

I remember him coming into the garage, and having to twist up and around in my booster seat to see him through our car’s back window. He was dark, but ringed with light from the truck behind him, and I think his crew mates got out to say hi too.

I was five, and that’s the oldest memory of have of thinking, and knowing, that my dad was a hero, gone back out in the storm.

Later that night, after my mom had let me crawl into her bed, because dad was still going to be working, she woke me up, and told me to look outside. The power was out everywhere on our block and in our town, but just over the hill that our sat beneath was a fuzzy glow of electric light. I watched it for a few minutes, and then heard the hum as the power in our house came back to life. It was the sound of life for our little house, the sound of our dad’s care for us.

I knew he was at the end of our street—he and a crew who also knew that he had family and small kids on that block. Before he went out into the night to restring power lines and replace poles that had been cracked by straight-line winds, he’d turned our block back on.

I know from my parents that that storm became a “dedicated storm,” which meant that the damage was so bad that all the linemen worked 18 hours on, 6 hours off until the power across the territory was destroyed. I don’t remember him being gone for the next few days, even though I know he was.

I remember falling back asleep knowing, for the second time that night, that my dad was a hero.

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It’s this that we lay side by side in waning summer light. The warpings of our shared lives, of our interlocked memories. My parents both remember the absences, the short tempers, and the times they said no when it could have been just as easy to say yes to us kids. They feel the mistakes they think they made, and sometimes, they apologize, fifteen, twenty years later. When I try to place the pains and fears that my parents carried out of our childhood into the map of my own memory, I usually can’t. There’s no place for the hurts they thought we’d feel, the pain they thought they might have given us.

What followed them out of our childhood wasn’t what followed us.

As a family, we fit our separate warpings into something whole, and try to point to what is true, each of us feeling what followed us out.

What followed me was that light at the end of our dark street.

Journey to Health

Health and Wellness: Because My Body Needs My Care

DeathtoStock_Clementine10

I’ve had it up to here with my body.

I don’t have health issues, per say, but my body is high maintenance. It has itself some issues.

If you’ve spend much time with me, you’ll know about all my food stuff. I’m lactose intolerant (enough so that it’s not worth it to eat that piece of pizza). I have acid reflux, which keeps me avoiding tomato, onion, spicy heat, excessive grease. I don’t handle hunger or a drop in blood sugar well (hangry is a familiar state, as are the “too hungry to talk to you,” “too hungry to see straight,” and “so hungry I feel nauseous) states. I’m frequently exhausted, and need lots of sleep. My sinus passages are narrow, and I’m prone to painful sinus infections. I did something to my low back years ago, and now the base of my spine throbs with pain if I’m certain positions, sit too long, stand too long. I waged a decade long war with severe acne, and still have sensitive skin (I’m writing this slathered in steroid cream).

See what I mean about high-maintenance?

My body has been revealing these glitches in the system for about five, six years, and in that time, my relationship to general health and wellness has been rocky. If we were a couple, we’d have broken up and come back together a thousand, obnoxious times.

I used to be an avid, almost obsessive, exerciser, but I lost the zeal and the dedication. All through college, I cycled through intense mental commitments to a workout routines and deep love affairs with my bed and my books (and, let’s be honest, Netflix). My eating habits, though never dreadful, slid steadily from lean proteins, fresh vegetables and monitored portions to granola bars and pasta kept ready in the fridge. The growing up of life brought higher levels of stress than I still don’t how to handle, and I’ve never been good at creating environments of health or peace for myself.

And it’s been a while since I’ve really, really cared. Healthy living has always been a priority. It’s always on my list, but it’s been lower on it than, say, re-watching Silicon Valley.

Until recently.

Now, I’m fed-up. Fed-up with not feeling well. Fed-up with eating and not feeling full, with constantly managing my body’s temper tantrums, with having rashes spread down my arms and up my legs, and fed-up with feeling so captive to a body that was designed to run better than this.

I’m fed-up with what comes from not being intentional about health and wellness.

My body is my home. It’s a house for my mind and for my soul and it’s the vessel that carries me through the world. It’s just been recently that I’ve come to really believe this, and it’s made me want to shake my own shoulders: Why don’t you give your body more of your energy? More of your love and your care?

The same goes with food. It’s fuel; it’s the means to my energy. Why do I eat junk that does the opposite of what food is supposed to do? (In an impulse of nostalgia, I bought myself one of those blue-raspberry ICEEs at the movie theater, remembering how often I’d beg my mom for one as a kid. I felt that sugar crash hard, and afterward thought to myself, how many more times will I do that before I really learn?)

So I’m setting myself out on a mission. A pursuit or an exploration or an adventure (I don’t want to call it a journey) into healthy living and general bodily wellness.

I don’t have the money or the time to see a dietitian or an allergist to help me decide what to eat, nor do I have the means to hire a personal trainer to teach me how to enjoy my workouts. I’m also not interested in any cult of “drink this powdered shake,” “take this miracle pill,” “chia seeds/acai berries/eating-like-a-cave-man will save your life.”

I do, however, have an arsenal of exercise options that don’t include a paid gym membership or running (hello, apartment complex workout center, goodbye hell on pavement), and I do have the ability to experiment with my foods. Already I’ve set a (pathetically small) workout goal for myself, and have begun tracking what foods create what effect within me. Already I’ve learned that lentil and avocados are a great combination for me, but the very best cheeseburger I’ve ever tanks my energy levels and turns me into jell-o with legs.

I don’t expect that I’ll widen my sinus passages or make my lactose intolerance go away through healthier eating. In fact, I have a feeling that if I dedicate myself to eating well for my body, I’ll actually become more discerning and have an even longer list of foods I’m not interested in eating.

I do expect that I’ll be able to raise my energy levels. I do expect that eating more thoughtfully will increase my productivity and creativity, and I do expect that working out will make me feel stronger in my body, feel more capable and more energized, and more awake to the world around me.

I also expect this to be really hard. I expect to skip workouts and hate the ones I complete, and I very much expect to find myself shoveling spoonfuls of chocolate chips and peanut butter into my mouth for no other reason that I really, really wanted to. I expect to cook food that tastes terrible, and to be cranky about saying no to things that won’t serve me well.

But I have to start somewhere, right? I can’t start out with all the answers.

My body needs to be precious to me. Not for vanity or pride (though I won’t say no to a dropping a few pounds if it happens), but for durability, and for strength. For knowing that my soul, to which I’ve always given infinitely more care and concern, is housed in a vessel that will sustain my life.

 

P.S. To anyone who has already figured out this lesson, who knows which foods give the best fuel and who get excited for Saturday morning workouts, help me! I’ll take any advice, recipes, food recommendations, workout tips you want to share.

Bookshelf, On Writing

Summer is for Books: A Reading List for Summer 2015

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Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remember—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question have you read all these books? Manages to miss this point. The tense is all wrong: No have you read all, but will you read all.” – William Giraldi

I love books. That’s vague and general and obvious to anyone who has been to my house, but it’s true. My books are friends to me. They’re bodies that occupy physical space within me and within my home. They are my comfort, and my solace. They’re chroniclers of my life and my interests, and they’re my oldest, deepest hope.

They also fuel my writing more than anything else. It took me three weeks to read Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons,  not because it’s a long book—my hardcover copy clocks in at 326 pages—but because the writing was so vividly, deliberately compelling that I could only read a few pages at a time before I was stumbling back to whatever it was I was writing.

As this new summer starts, or thinks about starting—it’s 50 degrees when I’m writing this—I’ve been trying to compile a “to-read” list for the summer. (What’s more conducive to summer fun than structure?) I want more to be intentional with my reading diet. I tend towards homogeneity—specifically, literary fiction novels written by white women, usually published between 1980 and 2010. If I’m not careful, and I only draw from this well, I miss out on the bigger world of diverse writers, forms, genres and stories. Therefore, I’ve tried to mix authors and levels of fame and genres and subjects. I’ve tried to draw heaviest from what’s already un-read on my bookshelves (because as much as I love the institutions of libraries, I love owning books that I read more), but there are a handful of books on here that I’ll need to go seek out.

To create this list, I also had to lay aside my stress over the number of books that have been written, and the number of books that I want to read, and the preciously finite time that life has given me. At times, when I was scanning my titles and scanning my lists and scanning other people’s books lists, I felt at turns hopeless, at turns maddened knowing that I will never get around to reading it all. I will finish this summer with unread books, and someday, I’ll finish my life with the same. It’s an impossible task set before bibliophiles. We will never read everything we want to read, and for those who collect books too, we’ll never read everything we own.

But that’s part of the beauty of books. Reading it all has never been the point.

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Summer 2015 Reading List:

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Every summer, I try to read a classic, one of those 100-books-to-read-before-you-die books. Last summer, my mom and I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and this summer, The Color Purple feels like an extension of that. Alice Walker’s love of Zora Neale Hurston led to her to reclaim Hurston’s nearly lost work in the 1970s.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

I’ve finally gotten the message: Marilynne Robinson needs to be read. I’ll start here.

Life Work, Donald Hall

This is a book that I know almost nothing about, but when I saw it on a book list, recommended by Rebecca Stead, I was so intrigued. Work is such a complex thing in our society—as we come out of the recession, it’s a miracle every time a young graduate gets a job. At the same time, it’s the thing that we’re always complaining about, or trying to get away from, or reading endless articles about how to balance it, manage it, enjoy it, maximize it, leave it, love it, and on and on. A book about the need to work, about industry being happiness, and vocation being joy? That’s something I want to know more about. 

Ordinary Sins, Jim Heynen

Not only was this book written by a man who I’ve known my whole life, and who is very dear to my family and I, it’s also a genre I rarely read, and one that I don’t think I could ever write. Flash fiction. Ordinary Sins is this impossibly slim, impossibly elegantly slim book that gets overwhelmed by the bulkier tomes on my shelf. It’s indicative of the stories themselves: Jim packs the full force of human life into these miniature packages. In a few hundred words, he brings alive full people, with fully formed lives. It’s a skill and a talent that I want to learn.

This summer, I’ll be reading this—probably in one sitting.

The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton

I’ve held off reading this book until summer, because even though I’ve never read it, there’s something about The Outsiders that seems quintessentially summer to me. It has always seemed like a book written for that singular lonesomeness of warm nights and empty time and the confused, on-rushing adulthood on which adolescent summers are founded. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I’ll finally understand the full force of Stay gold, Ponyboy. 

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

This will actually my third time through this most-beloved book. I want to re-read it to answer this essential question: Do I really like this book? Because after two readings, I’ve never been convinced that I do.

Before Janeites come to club me to death with Austen’s own books, let me explain. The first time I Pride & Prejudice, I read it immediately after reading Sense & Sensibility. I loved Sense & Sensibility, and when Pride & Prejudice wasn’t a replica of Sense & Sensibility, I didn’t like it. The second time I read it, I was a bratty fourteen year old, and really liked being able to say I didn’t like this book that every other well-read girl my age seemed to love. (I told you I was a brat).

Because neither reading was a fair reading (and because I want to stop getting the death glares from people when I say I wasn’t a fan of Pride & Prejudice), I’m re-reading it this year, giving myself a third chance to appreciate a classic.

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Samaritan, Richard Price

This book is tied with Tiny, Beautiful Things as what I’m most excited to read. I watched The Wire this winter, and have never seen anything like it before. I was captured, and compelled, and broken by the television show, and when I learned that the writer who wrote some of the most brutal and powerful episodes wrote novels too, I almost ordered his entire bibliography on the spot. In the interest of fiscal responsibility, adulthood, etc., etc., I did not do that. I only bought this book. I’m reading it to get a fix of whatever it was that gripped me about The Wire. 

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, Rob Lowe

Celebrity/cultural figure memoirs are my brain candy. They’re my beach-read, my chick-lit, my romance novel, my hide-under-the-cushions guilty pleasure read. About once a year, I let myself read one of them, because, like real candy, these books are perfect when they’re an indulgence, and they’re very bad for me when it’s all I read. Also, I love Rob Lowe. (Sam Seaborn! Chris Traeger!)

Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

I, and every other woman mature enough to read Strayed, love her. I read Dear Sugar (inconsistently) when it was still an anonymous, internet column. I, of course, read Wild (and saw the movie, and saw her speak, and got my books signed, and hunted down every podcast on iTunes featuring her).

I’ve read a handful of these letters before, and I even carry a copy of “Write Like a Motherfucker,” but this is probably the book I am most excited to read. I control my consumption of Cheryl Strayed like a mother controls a child’s consumption of candy, because I want to savor her words. She writes with this hard, heavy beauty that does my writing good, and does my soul better. 

Volt, Alan Heathcock

There are two reasons I want to read this collection. One, is because even though I write short stories, I rarely read them. Two, because when I listened to Heathcock read from his collection four years ago, I was blown away. The passage he read (something about a fire, I think?) was elegant and violent and haunting, and I bought the book immediately. I don’t know why in the world it has taken me so long to come back to it.

The War of Art: Break Through Your Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield

I’ve started this book a handful of times, and each time, I’ve felt so helped by the compact wisdom that Pressfield doles out, I’ve stop reading it in all my newfound, enlightened empowerment. I have a feeling that if I read past page twenty, I’d get a whole lot more out of it.

This list feels both too short, and too ambitious, and I’m walking into June 1st, Torrie Jay’s decided start date of summer, knowing that I probably won’t finish all these books, that I’ll probably go off my list and read something else, that I’ll probably buy more books that I end up reading. Whatever else is true, this will remain: “Books, like life, make life worth living.

What about you, what are you reading this summer?