Because We Also Need to Rest

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I spent yesterday at the Women’s March on Washington- MN in St. Paul, joining 100,000 (100,000!) others to stand in solidarity with one another and with the freedoms we fear this new presidency will curtail (if not abandon all together). We the people – women, and men, and LGBTQIA-identifying people, children and families, and elderly people with walkers, and mother wearing their sleeping babies, school-age kids with signs they made themselves (Please Trump be nice, one read). It was an incredible, invigorating, and hopeful day. Representative Ilhan Omar told us: “Remember you are might, you are powerful, and you will never be defeated.” I said afterwards that it felt like we all showed up to make a promise to one another that this will be where it starts, not where it ends.

It was a powerful, powerful day, but it/the whole week was also powerfully exhausting. I’m deviating from my regular rhythm of long essays to share a handful of goodness from the past week or so.

LISTENING: Y’all, my love of podcasts runs deep (especially when road closures extend my commute even further). I listened to a lot of My Favorite Murder this past week, because I needed to clear up the backlog of episodes, and because the hosts, Georgia Hardstark and Karen Killgariff are so funny. I also caught up on The Hilarious World of Depression. The first few episodes of this new show coincided with the bluest of my blue December days, and it was a double gift to listen to funny people talk about their experiences with mental illness. Fresh Air is a perennial favorite, but what was transcendent was this conversation from 2015 between Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both “brilliant women who are also total babes.”

READING: The first two books I read in 2017 were excellent. The first, Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a novel from 2003 that my mom passed along to me a few months ago, was the beautiful, elegant vehicle that I needed to process through my grandfather’s death. Glass wrote a novel that lets you hold life and death in both hands without either becoming heavier than they aught. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and it’s made me think again about my first, unfinished novel. After Three Junes, I jumped back into Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and devoured the the 300 pages I had left in two days. I came to this memoir as a fan, and on those terms, it could do no wrong, but this book can succeed on its own. What I found in Springsteen’s writing was an incredibly thoughtful meditation on the intersection between creating art and creating a self.

“I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family, and to you.”

Elsewhere, I’ve been devouring everything Bianca Bass has ever written, finding inspiration from the photography on Lumiere and Lens (Alyse’s writing is lovely too!), thinking a lot about our relationship to stuff, and asking this old question: how much does productivity actually hurt us?

WRITING: Editing, technically, a short story I’m very excited about. I don’t love writing short fiction, and only do it “when inspiration strikes” (a habit that’s total shit when it comes to my longer projects), but I find that I return to short stories when I’m stymied by whatever long project I’m working on. Right now, and I’ll probably write about this soon, I’m feeling haunted by my first novel. Can I ever really move on to a new novel if this one remains in a state of undone?

WATCHING: A very soft New Year’s resolution was to cut back on my TV watching. I love well made television, and have no shame over how much of it I’ve watched, but it can get consuming (especially when I re-watch all of Sex and the City even though I’ve seen it + hate it). But, this week, I dug Planet Earth out of the movie collection, and watched two episodes back to back: Mountains and Freshwater. Watching Planet Earth was the viewing equivalent of a massage. The big, beautiful, overwhelming, vast and complex world we live in is mesmerizing. It gave me the most peace I’ve had in a few weeks.

Finally, I always thought Minnesota had a lock on creating art out of snow, but I found these Japanese snow characters incredibly delightful. I’ve also resumed my pre-work/pre-dawn morning ritual, and reading this essay made remember why the 5:20 a.m. alarm clock is worth it.

What about you? What’s been getting you through the month?

PHow to Start 2017: Intentions for a New Season

kcuflktxyy4-sarah-dorweilerI love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. At last new year, I wrote not about resolutions about what I would not quit in 2016, the anchors and tethers to which my life is, for better always and never for worse, bound to. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself (although I did write about the anchors and tethers to which I am, for the better, bound), and the year that came was strange, disorganized and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can save, but I can’t expect the unexpected — an ill-timed car repair could defer home ownership an entire year. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy, and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (language that makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It was helping in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking at home instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

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.

Here’s What I WON’T Quit in 2016: Thoughts on Quit Lit, Staying Put + the New Year

2016a2015 was the year of quit lit. Everyone with a blog, or a Twitter account was quitting something: social media, beer, academia, televisions shows, bread, iPhones, sugar, massive income, the day-to-day happenings of human life. (Hell, I “quit” something, then wrote about it). The biggest of all these stories, though, were the stories of people who “quit” their lives. Who left exorbitant paychecks  to hang out on the beach, who traded Conde Naste for Cape Town, a huge D.C. Home for a grass hut in Mexico. People who, for different reasons, traded the life in front of them for something radically different.

Then they sold their story to magazines so we could know how much better life is from the top of a treehouse.

First, the two caveats I need to include here. One, it is commendable whenever men and women take risks to improve their lives. As long as you’re not abandoning people who depend upon you, then brava for following instinct, need, and passion. Two, I’m going to talk about privilege, and in order to do that, I need to acknowledge my own. I am deeply, radically privileged. I grew up in a financially and emotionally stable home, attended public school without threat of violence, received a college education, and am now on my way to building an equally financially and emotionally stable home. I am very privileged.

Now, here’s what I want to say about these “I quit my life stories:”

At their best, they are interesting and possibly mildly inspiring. At their worst, they are shaming, and they are shallow.

When I first started to see these stories, I ate them up. They were fantasies illustrated with bright photographs (all optimized for my cell phone screen), for the 600 or so words, I enjoyed participating in the escape.

But as I read more of these articles, I became more discerning of the tone of most of these stories. I realized that as much as these stories are explanations of one person’s highly individualized choice, they’re also laced with the insinuation that their choice was the right one, not just for themselves, but for all of us. They were writing because they found the secret to the good life, and if we were choosing to stay (regardless of the reason) we were the real suckers.

“‘I quit,’ goes the text. ‘And you should, too,’ goes the subtext.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic

To quit is to declare that you do not need to learn how to deal with what’s in front of you. It means that your responsibilities, and commitments, and life structures demand so little of you that if you vacate yourself from all of them no one, yourself included, will suffer.

At its very core, it’s a story of privilege. My life was so great, I could no longer live it. Those who can to do this do so because the riches of their first life were so great that they are able to take that excess and parlay that into an easier, more enjoyable second life. I’ve yet to read the story of the public school teacher who quits, moves to Phuket, and starts a beauty blog.

The lie of these articles is that there is life, and there is bliss, and to reach the latter, you must first escape the former. This is a shallow, half-hearted response to the whole vast tapestry of the human experience. A good life, a life well-lived is, yes, marked by risk and by courage, by changing what does not serve and by celebrating what does. But this life is also rooted in relationship, in steadfast presence, and in sacrifice. In staying when it would feel better to leave.

To have weight and dimension, a life can’t be only about passion, but also must be about recognizing and honoring what is set before you.

And what’s set before all of us is different, influenced by background and upbringing, time, circumstance, location, privilege, and a whole host of other factors as randomly assigned as these. What’s beautiful, commendable, worth of story, is the people who take what is given to them, and, with dutiful devotion, show up for themselves, for their families, for the responsibilities that they’re been yoked to. Who create passion and adventure and bliss where they are.

For most people, to quit would not only isn’t feasible, but it isn’t responsible. It isn’t commendable. It’s an easy out in the face of the hard and necessary staying. For many, to quit is not even an option.

“It is a luxury to be able to quit something, whether that thing be a job or a food or a pair of Lululemon Luxtreme Wonder Unders. And it’s a luxury, too, to be able to write about that quitting.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic. 

I am building lives within the hem of responsibility. I know—I’ve always known—that I cannot quit our jobs to travel the world (as much as I’d like to). I cannot cut away from my life here to live a life out in the ever exotic there, no matter how many bloggers assure us I can.

Not only that, but I are yoked to a community of people as well. Relationships take care, and time, and proximity in order to flourish, and I, in turn, need these men and women for our own growth and general human decency. To quit what I’m building here would be to quit, in a way, all of our friends and family, and that would destroy me.

2016aI was raised by a man who worked hard, with little complaint, because he understood that his responsibility to provide for his wife and children was sacred. His three bad habits, he always told my brother and I, were food, shelter, and clothing for Aaron and I. My mother, in response to my father’s work, sank herself into motherhood with the ferocity of deep love.

Planting into a life of responsibility and interdependence isn’t sexy. It doesn’t translate well into a feature story, but it is deeply human. It’s worthy to pursue, admirable to work towards, and it is profoundly, essentially human.

In this new year, I want to hear the stories about those who stayed. Who stuck out demanding jobs, because it’s what they needed to do, and who remained faithful to their partner during trials, because they knew that nurturing the commitment is better than abandoning it.

Life is such that we anchor ourselves to one another, to institutions, to the dutiful devotion of love. To quit, is to wrench those bonds apart—or it is to never form them.

That which we cannot quit gives us context. It gives us weight, and shape, and it gives us access into the sacred. That which we do not quit shapes us into faithful, steadfast stalwarts of lives lived well and true.

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In honor of the life in front of me, here is what I will NOT quit in 2016:

My job
General fiscal responsibility
Carbs
Coffee
Television (I will learn what happens to Jon Snow)
Writing (because I would wither into a shell of myself if I did)
Hard work
Friendships with extraordinary women
Family

But, because to be human is to contradict, here is what I will quit in 2016:

Sugar (my doctors and health care providers claim I’ll feel better if I do…)
Diet Coke
Possibly cable (because Netflix and HBO Go…and debt).
Comparison (Because it’s toxic. It’s brutalizing to hear that I don’t measure up, and usually, the only person I hear this from is myself. It’s cruel to me, it’s cruel to the specific women I compare myself to, and it’s cruel to the general unity of womanhood.)
Talking shit about myself
Thinking that publication is the reason why I write.
Social media before bed
Uncomfortable clothing
Inaction

Onward, onward, into the New Year!

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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?

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.

My Bully Keeps Asking Me One Question: Who Do You Think You Are?

Rocky CoastIn the last few weeks, I’ve reached some new heights in my still-low-slung writing life. I joined an online writing group, and was paired up with a talented, thoughtful children’s lit writer. I asked friends and family members to read drafts of my writing, even though they had no real incentive to do so. I finished a short story—really finished it, with all the drafts and rewrites to prove it—, and submitted it to a contest, and a few small literary journal. Last night, I sent in my application for a small grant. Hell, I started this blog—that felt big for me.

After years of writing, writing, writing, I’ve started to do small things that are natural, normal, and necessary steps on this mythic path of “becoming” a writer. (Although I’m trying to get myself to believe that I am a writer because I write, in the same way that I am a reader because I read).

Each time I have done something, this mean little voice, with all these mean little worlds, has almost stopped me. This voice that just won’t stop hammering away at me—who do you think you are, Torrie? Why do you think you can do this? Every time I decide to step out of my comfort zone, all my fears, and insecurities, and fragile self-worth bind themselves together to remind me that I can’t do what I want to do, and that I shouldn’t do it either. These demons wail together so that I imagine people in my life—kind, compassionate people—thinking to themselves, or saying to other people we both know “why is Torrie doing that?,” “who does Torrie think she is?,” “where does she get off thinking she has the right?”

I am my own accuser, constantly reminding myself that I have neither the talent nor the worth to lay myself before an unsolicited audience. And the nugget at the center of all these interlocking anxieties is this epically large fear that I have of being laughed at—being made the fool by my own self.

Harsh Rocks

I know why this fear is so out-of-control big. It’s because I have these piercing memories of being picked on, and laughed at in elementary school. The most vivid, though not the worst, of these memories is this one amalgamated memory of this same stunt that two or three girls in my second grade class would repeatedly pull on me.

I was largely friendless, ignored, though I didn’t know why, and quite, because I didn’t want to give my classmates more reasons not to like me. These few girls would do this thing where they’d start a conversation with me, in the library, or in the bathroom, or on the playground. All places where we’d have natural reasons to be moving. They’d give me a reason to talk to them, to answer them and try to engage with them, and then while I was talking, they’d move to somewhere I couldn’t see them, and would leave me alone, talking to myself. When nobody responded to me, I’d realize what happened, and I go looking for them, always finding them hiding, and laughing, and asking me how long I’d spent talking to myself.

The most vivid piece of this memory, the piece that was constant each time they pulled this stunt on me, is the sinking, humiliated feeling that I should have known better: Who was I to think that people (outside of my loving family) would want to talk to me? Would want to be friendly with me?

The bridge between feeling the presumptuous wanna-be in my writing life, and feeling the fool in the 2nd grade classroom is this: Both of these experiences involve me reaching for things that I deeply want. In 2nd grade, I wanted friendship; I wanted the girlhood comradery that is silently and inherently promised to school-aged children. Today, I want publication. I want my writing to be given a life outside of me and my laptop. Because in 2nd grade, I was burned when I grabbed onto an opportunity to fulfill that desire, the bully inside of me is now trying to convince me that I am equally as foolish and undeserving of seeking publication/recognition for my writing now as I was in seeking what I thought was a branch of friendship then.

(Is that bridge starting to appear?)

Every day, I fight against that mean little voice inside of me (so much meaner than any little girl) who is constantly accusing me of upjumping my position, of asking for things that I don’t have the right to ask for.

As I’ve started to be bold—or at least marginally bolder—with my writing, I’ve had to do some serious thinking about these internal condemnations, so that, in turn, I am able to banish its presence and power within me.

Here are those accusations, those things that I fear:

  • What I have to say or do is not worthy—does not have value—and I should know that, and I should not act like it does have value.
  • People will laugh, actively and cruelly, point-and-laugh-at-Torrie laugh, because they will see what I cannot: That I am of little value.
  • People will ask themselves the same questions that I, in my accuser’s voice, ask myself. Who does Torrie think she is? (This question kept me from starting a blog for years, and still keeps me from talking openly about my writing).

Here’s what I’m trying to say to these fears:

  • Writing or the written work I produce, does not define my value or worth, and one person, or one review board, or one editorial team also does not decide my writing’s value and worth. I believe in my writing right now, and someday, I may very well decide that what I’ve written isn’t valuable or worthy—but that still doesn’t, cannot, bear wait on my own personal value, or the value I see in my work today.
  • People just won’t laugh at me. Especially not strangers reading my work from their computer screen. It’s actually selfish of me to think that someone would take that kind of time and energy to point-and-laugh at a piece of writing that they don’t like, written by a writer they don’t know. (So many of my anxieties are selfish, or at least deeply self-focused).
  • People probably aren’t asking themselves these questions about me. It’s much, much, much more accurate that people are just ignoring me. Because this fear centers more around people I know (versus people I don’t know or people I won’t ever know), it has more power to weaken me, but it shouldn’t. People who care about me, or who find an interest in what I have to say, will pay attention, and people who don’t know me, who aren’t interested, who aren’t stirred by what I have to say will ignore it. And both are equally okay.

Pebbles

For the last five or six years, I have been toiling away at my computer screen—several different computer screens—writing, and learning about writing, and building an unshakable writing habit. I’ve produced thousands and thousands (literally) of typed and hand-written pages, and I’ve scrapped thousands of pages as well. I have written some really, really terrible stuff, and I’ve started to write some stuff that isn’t so terrible. Lately, I think I may have even written a few things that are coming close to good.

As I start to get closer and closer to good, and maybe even come within shooting distance of publishable, I’ve started to send my work into the world, to family and friends to read what I’ve poured my soul into, and to editors to consider. These are steps towards boldness, and steps towards publication, both of which I desire, and I am so glad to have taken these steps. Chances are, in 4-6 months (the average response period for literary journals, contests, etc.), I will start getting rejection letters, and none of them will say who in the hell do you think you are, thinking you deserved this?

Because I am the only one who speaks in my bully’s voice, and she? She’s a mean little bitch.