comfort isn’t an endgame

I went for a walk in the rain today, trying to train myself, as Mary Oliver instructs: Attention is the beginning of devotion.

The air was cold, and the tips of my fingers, ungloved, stung as they adjusted to the wet. I repeated to myself, again and again, that I don’t need to be comfortable, that comfort does not need to be my aim.

The park was deserted, except for a three other people, and I dropped down into small valley that water, once, carved out. Underneath the birds, and the rains, and the rushing water, music played in my head. I repeated lines to myself, and tried to pay attention. I was out, because I needed it. On a primal level. These last few months, I’ve made jokes about wanting to lie down in the dirt, but underneath the laughter, I think there is something profound and true in my desire to touch the ground. I was an outdoors girl. I hiked (in flip flops, as my mom will tell you), and I camped, and I tried to build for myself small words of my own that didn’t need shelter from walls or the root. I’ve been out of touch with that part of myself, and I’ve suffered for it.

Today, I stayed in the rain even though it made me uncomfortable, because I knew that I needed it. I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, rushing water on either side of, and watched the current move dark over stones and branches and other unseen things. I stayed there, and watched one large log, hung up on brambles and rocks, be pushed in and out of visibility. Deep fears of what lies underneath the water stirred in me (I pictured dead bodies, then I pictured my own, if I were to slip from my perch). I let the discomfort build, but I was safe, and because why do I always try to turn away from fear?

I walked slow enough to see wildflowers, bright and beaded with rain. I knelt at a dark pond, and watched bubbles puncture the flat surface. Small green things lay just underneath the water – early spring grasses, a maple leave, wild green with black veins. I put my hands into the water, and then I pushed them into the dirt. I wanted the tactility of mud on my skin, the feel of small vines – life finding its way – giving way underneath my fingers. I scratched into the earth, and pulled up fistfuls of black mud, muscular with roots. It smelled rich and rotten, and was cold even on my numbed fingers. I smeared my hands with the dirt until they were dark and streaked and gritty. I turned my palms up; the rain made clean circles on my skin again. Later, I knelt at the creek, and let the current, warm compared to the mud, wash away the rest of the dirt.

As I knelt, the trees above me flapped, and a great blue heron landed in the water in front of me, its body a thing of lethal grace. I froze, so as not to alert him, and watched it move through the water. He stepped slowly, his body rising and falling with the shifting depths of the creek bed. As I watched him, I tried to remember which dead relative (of mine – or was it someone else’s?) had loved blue herons.

He walked against the current, spindle legs adapted for the water in a way that mine, if they were where his were, were not. Once he moved past where I could see him, he stopped long enough to let me move, come closer than I had been before. I sat, this time, on the wet rocks, and continued to watch him. I’m sure he knew it too. He plucked his way, delicate, through the water, catching minnows in his beak, until he heard something I did not in the woods, and lifted his wings into flight. I stood with him, and watched him circle above me, and above the creek, and then above trees. I continued to watch until I couldn’t see his movement any longer, the woods returned to their raining stillness.

It didn’t matter if someone I loved once loved blue herons. This moment was mine, not theirs, firmly of this earth, and of my silent attention.

I walked back to my car after that, my fingers too numb to bend, and my legs and hair drenched in rain, and thought about Mary Oliver, and why we need homes not of beam and nail, but of existence itself.

How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and business like, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception too, for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them.” Mary Oliver’s, Upstream

what i’m reading + navigating the next

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Of course, of course, I know that I can’t know the future. And of course, of course, I know that there’s only so much planning one can do before life becomes what it most consistently is: unexpected.

I keep saying of course, because I do know this, and I don’t mean anything profound by it.

Still, the uncertainty of what’s coming, the absolutely inability to know has been scaring the pants off me. Thus far, I’ve seen my future largely through the eyes of the young: it’s all golden from here. But I know that cannot be true – two big blows within two weeks, the double whammy of death and diagnosis remind me that life often (or oftener) deals loss. The house always wins.

On the morning my grandfather died, the entire family crowded into a hospital room, and my grandmother sat closest to my grandfather’s side. His death was quick and unexpected, and everyone kept saying some variation of “we didn’t know this coming; we couldn’t have known.” I kept looking at my grandmother, thinking the same thing.

I have photographs of her as a bride on my walls, and I often think of her at that moment in her life. As young and beautiful and full of hope as she does look, she also looks dazed. I wonder what she was thinking, at the very, very start of her wifehood. (I asked her, once, and she told me that she hadn’t planned to marry at all. She was going to teach, and have cats). There was so much in front of her, so much extraordinary (and, in many ways, beautifully ordinary) life still to come. She couldn’t have known, then, what she knows now. That she’d spend more of her life married than not married. That she’d give birth to six healthy children, all of whom would grow safely to adulthood, that they’d each have children of their own. All this that we cannot, cannot know when we’re young.

I think about how much life there (likely) is in front of me, and how much of it I cannot know.

This future I keep talking about, this fuzzy “what’s next” is some days a gift to unwrap and other days a yawning, black unknown. (Please, a light). It’s an exercise in futility to strategize my anxieties, but still, I keep trying to do so.

Books, as always, are my answer. I’ve been reading ravenously, a woman in need of water. Some of what I’ve read has been excellent (We Were the Mulvaneys, Follow Me Into the Dark, Born to Run), some of it sub par. I’m looking for wisdom, a way inside these baggy unknowns.

We Were the Mulvaneys, the story of a family’s central and spiraling undoing, hangs right in the center of what is know and what cannot be known. It’s a novel almost too good to bear, and in its final pages, it opened a door to something big and unnamed inside of me – the totality of family or history or intimacy or love. I’m not even sure what; I just known that I’ve been in that room before, and in it is beauty and pain.

I’m currently reading Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir written by the man who wrote one of my favorite novels. He too deals in what was. Kevin Fenton writes like a man still looking for his understanding (Merit Badges was like that too). Unlike other memoirs I’ve read, his writing reads like process, not like results.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Born to RunLeaving Rollingstone, even Follow Me Into the Dark, a novel unto its self (review to be submitted soon!), are all written with posterity. Lives that came apart, and came together again – or did both in ten thousand tiny ways. Each offers their own answers to these questions I’m trying to ask.

What else should I be reading?

What stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a
National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

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?

How to Undo Fear: On Fear, Fearlessness + What’s In Between

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When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a social event and not know what to do, AND that there would be a social gathering and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a shooter at his high school, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

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In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford another car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.

 

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.

Books of 2016: A Year in Review

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Jane Austen reading room at Mia, August 2016

I had a disorganized year of reading – and writing, but that’s for a different day. I read more books that I have in previous years, but the quality was lacking. I want to read books that shake me, makes my bones rattle, and while I absolutely did read a few of these (The Neapolitan Series left me strung out and raw), I also read a lot of filler. This was due in part to the fact that I was reading to clear my shelves – trim away that books that didn’t rock me to make way for more that to -, but it was also partly due to the reality of my year.

I can see in retrospect that I spent a lot of 2016 working hard to just get by. A few high-intensity, low-happiness spring months kicked off a very slow slide into the deep anxiety and mild, but tenacious depression with which I am closing out the year. Rounding up all of my 2016 titles made it clear that many of my choices were attempts to read for comfort. The problem was that I reached for a lot of shaky rafts, a lot of escapist reading when I needed to transcend.

While much of what I read this year didn’t have the teeth I want from my fiction, I hope to change that in 2017. I’ll still be reading to trim (for the first time in my life, I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unread pages on my shelves), but I want my literary life to feel more like a revival than it did this year. I have a few books on my nightstand that I’m excited about, but I’m also looking for suggestions. (I’m always looking for suggestions.)

So, in alphabetical order, all the books I read in 2016.

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  1. Edith Wharton’s The Age of InnocenceI’ve read this book many times, and each time I pick it up, I am amazed by the grace of the language, and the precision of its observations. This was a comfort read that did not let me down. I read this in the wake of the election. For the first time, I had no sympathy for Newland, and all the praise and power for May and Ellen, each powerful women in their own right.
  2. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: For all my love of the detective novel (give me an opening and I will diagram for you the social and historical importance of detective fiction), I’ve never read Agatha Christie. I picked this novel up on a rainy spring afternoon when I went in search of cheer-me-up books. Classic whodunit, and despite all the death, this mystery was a delight.
  3. Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s WifeThis is one of the few books I’d recommend not reading. Historical fiction imagining the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife to Charles, the narrative spans her entire adulthood, and attempts to position Anne’s story as one of power lost, sought, and reclaimed. The writing was iffy, the narrative structure all over the place, and character development jagged, but the hardest pill to swallow was Benjamin’s attempt to excuse and apologize for the couple’s attitudes and opinions about Nazi Germany. History has no heroes, and I get the need to reconcile the good with the bad, but reading this attempt to smooth over the Lindbergh’s blatantly anti-Semetic, pro-Nazi opinions in post-election 2016 was not worth it.
  4. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: My yearly lesson to not read hyped books (or give the hype a few years to die down). After hearing must-read-able this book was, I expected an earth-shaking, ground-breaking treatise on political and cultural feminism. This book is not that. What it is is a series of thoughtful, thought-provoking essays on gender, race, sex, and popular culture (heavy on the latter). My roof blown off, but I benefited from this book, particularly from the critique of popular culture depictions of the Black American experience.
  5. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Transcendent. I’ve been intimidated of Morrison’s writing ever since reading her for the first time when I was eleven (Love, and I was too young), so though I own most of her books, I’ve only read a few. Beloved was a glorious, harrowing, exquisite experience. There’s nothing I can say about Toni Morrison that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll join the choir and preach. Read this!
  6. Julia Keller’s Bitter River: Don’t read this. It’s a small town cop mystery, but somehow, we go from pregnant teenager dead in a river to terrorist attack in Appalachia. Confused? Me too, and not just because this writer traffics solely in compound sentences and wildly irrelevant tangents.
  7. Tina Fey’s Bossypants: I love when smart, funny women write about themselves. Tina Fey is a decent essayist, and is at her best when she’s talking about the work or talking about being a woman. I got tired of her constantly making herself the butt of her own joke, but as another girl whose never known what cool is, I appreciated the honesty and humility.
  8. Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: Mary McCarthy is a master class in observational writing. This is a novel of connected short stories about a young woman in 1930’s New York City. It’s very much of its time in tone and style, but it’s a smart, carefully crafted examination of politics, gender, and social expectation. I read “Portrait of an Intellectual as a Yale Man” immediately following the election, and at a moment when gender, politics and power were all thrown into harsh focus, this story was a particularly haunting and insightful look at petty, privileged men and the radical woman who challenge them.
  9. Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6: This was a short, dark, beautiful novel. Translated from its original Finnish, the narrative follows a girl traveling across a late 80’s Soviet Union to see hieroglyphs in Mongolia. I wrote a much longer review for Grist that you can read here, but the short of it is read this book.
  10. Ha Jin’s A Free LifeThe marketing calls this an immigrant’s story, but after reading, I think that’s too simplistic. Ha Jin uses the immigrant narrative as base camp for the Wu family, but then wraps them in layers of human complexity. As much as Nan, father and narrator, is an immigrant, he’s also an aspiring poet, a frustrated father, a husband who pines for a former lover – a fully formed man struggling for identity and abundance in their many forms. This novel is dense, and Jin’s writing style jars me, but I am so glad this novel.9-16-books-3
  11. Joan London’s The Golden Age: This was the best book I read all year. Published in Australia two years ago and released in the U.S. this summer, this novel is about a children’s polio recovery home in post-war Australia. It is a stunningly graceful and impossibly hopeful novel about pain, loss, and resilience. It’s a short, lyrical, abundant novel that takes life as it is, and sees, without sop or sentimentality, the beauty. Read my longer review for fields here.
  12. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: Another re-read. President’s Day weekend, Valentine’s Day, frigid temperatures and a head cold lined themselves up, and I spent a long weekend reading this. I read this novel for the first time when I was 10, and I was far too young to understand the Confederate nostalgia or the references to the KKK. I thought I was reading a big, epic story with a fierce, mean, tougher-then-hell woman at its center. This was the first time I’ve read GWTW that I’ve been critical enough to see both, I’m not sure there’s a way to reconcile the blatant racism and historical inaccuracies with this story of powerful women and their survival.
  13. Ali Wentworth’s Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales:  Audiobook is the way to “read” a celebrity memoir. I listened to both of Ali Wentworth’s memoirs on two back-to-back work trips, and each was delightful. This one, the first, covers her adolescence and adulthood up to the point of her marriage. It’s fantastically funny, and at more than few points, surprisingly tender.
  14. Ali Wentworth’s Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales: Wentworth’s second memoir, and I liked it even better than the first. Each chapter is framed by an inspirational quote, and the wisdom that she gained (or didn’t) from it. Wentworth deals funny and real in the same hand, and these books of hers are delightful.
  15. Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany’s Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildI wasn’t going to read this. I have strong opinions about why, out of respect for the reader, J.K. Rowling needs to stop writing about Harry Potter, and I was not going to read this post-canon screenplay. Then, at 11 a.m. the morning the book was released, a copy wound up in my cart at Costco. I read it. I kind of wish I hadn’t. One of the most beautiful gifts that a good writer can give to their reader is the chance to let the characters live on in each of our imaginations. Cursed Child didn’t dim my love of the original books, but it confirmed all my purist, Harry Pottery snobbery.
  16. Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton: It’s become a habit to read Morton during the holidays, not because there’s anything particularly festive about her work, but because she writes easy page-turners with pretty (if sloppy) prose. This was the 2016 read, and I read this while recovering from illness, and mourning the loss of my grandfather. Easily my least favorite Kate Morton book thus far, but it distracted + entertained when I most needed it.
  17. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger GamesI hadn’t read these books or seen these movies until this year. I read the first two of the series (couldn’t get into the third) in early spring, during the season when my work is at its most intense. I enjoyed them so much more than I expected. Pure escapist reading, but it was great.
  18. Suzanne Collins’ Catching FireSee above.
  19. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A coworker nailed it when she said this was the least intimate memoir she’d ever read. It would probably be more accurate to call this book a music biography, and not a personal memoir. That (and the fact that being neither a fan of Sleater Kinney or punk music) aside, I really enjoyed this book. Brownstein writes crisp, muscular prose, and balances narrative with reflection well. The final three chapters, Be Still This Sad Year / Shelter / Home, are are beautiful and piercingly honest. They alone made the whole book worth it.10-16-books-new-writing-project
  20. Tana French’s In the WoodsIf you bill a book as a police procedural, you damn well better solve the mystery. The main character, male with tortured history, got a little whiny, a little too maudlin, but these small bits aside, I really enjoyed this novel. Right up to the point where they left one mystery unsolved. Mystery, I’m realizing, is a hard genre. Too much hype and nothing by the devil himself will made a decent reveal; not enough, and there goes the story. This story was all build, very little reveal. I’ve heard her later novels are more conclusive?
  21. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of FlowersOn the few occasions that I’ve shared the premise of my first novel with people, this is the novel that they’ve said my story is “just like.” (People, for the love of God, don’t do this to writers. Sharing our ideas is hard enough, but to hear “oh, I’ve already read that” is devastating). When I finally read this novel, it threw me into a funk. I didn’t love the novel – writing was a little flowery for me (no pun intended) and found the character’s motivations unclear – but it did force me to grapple with the parallels to my story (some, but fewer than people assume), and the value of the story I’m trying to tell.6-16-pool-day-2
  22. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: I read this book in a day and a half (partly because some plane ticket fun kept me in the Memphis airport for about 7 hours). Reading Ferrante is like holding on to a live wire, and trying not to let go. I burned through the entire Neapolitan series, and when I finally came up for air, everything I’d ever read (and written) was ash in comparison. These are, far and way, the most extraordinary I have ever read.
  23. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New NameSee above. Holding on to a live wire.
  24. Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: See above. Read anything with her name on it.
  25. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child: See above. The finest ending. What do you read after Ferrante?
  26. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are: I read this book slowly over of several months. An exploration into the habit of gratitude, its thesis is that joy does not produce gratitude, but gratitude produces joy. The call is to cultivate a daily habit of delight, and I found that when I practice thanksgiving, I’m a softer, slower, better aware human.
  27. Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian: This is a strange, dark, delightful mid-century novel from the other Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a loose re-telling of Jane Eyre, and a critique on the genre of Gothic literature. The cast of characters is off-kilter, the familiar – reclusive widower, precocious, motherless child, young governess – planted alongside the odd and out of place – a pregnant female doctor, the mother she has no patience for, very cranky service women, and an alcoholic brother, long in love with the dead mistress of the house. It’s jarring to read such a familiar narrative populated by such unfamiliar characters + motivations, but really, really enjoyable. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I liked finally getting to root for the drunk.
  28. Kathleen Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector: A forgettable novel. I read it at the beginning of the year and had to look up a synopsis to even remember its plot (I immediately got rid of my copy). It premise is intriguing – mysterious, female perfumer leaves her fortune to a stranger in a different country, narrative unravels who these women are and how they’re connected. For me, the novel crumbled when romance and motherhood were reduced to plot devices. By diminishing each of these radical, transformation human experiences, the characters themselves were diminished.
  29. Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence: Another that quickly wound up on the give-away pile. After hearing that her photographer husband died while on assignment in Alaska’s Arctic Circle, mother Yasmin and deaf daughter Ruby steal a semi-truck and drive it across the tundra in the middle of a raging winter storm. And they’re tailed by a stranger in a pick-up. And someone is sending them photos of dead animals. And there’s an environmental terrorist on the loose. The plot give me whiplash, but I held on because I loved Lupton’s prose so much. It howled with a lyrical force I can only dream of in my own writing.
  30. Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility: I loved this novel. I loved it so much. It’s a story of a woman in transition, making the choices that will pave the future that we, the reader, will not see. It’s a beautiful meditation on time, choice, and playing life as it is laid.
  31. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements: A book dripping with critical praise. I liked this novel a lot, the story of a family, with a wide cast of characters (many of whom are given voice in the narrative) in the week leading up to one daughter’s wedding. Shipstead’s observations are critical and sharp, but her prose is soft and lyrical. I like the balance – it gave the novel a human quality, multitudes contained in one.
  32. Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper: See above about Kate Morton. This was my 2015 holiday read, but I didn’t finish it until after the new year. Very enjoyable. Very forgettable.
  33. Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light: I wanted to like this novel so badly. I loved Raven Stole the Moon, and picked up this book, Stein’s latest, after a string of aborted attempts on other so-so books. A teenage boy returns, with his father, to the haunted family manor to cash out an inheritance and settle emotional debts, except friendly ghosts with ancestral secrets, and sexy, devious aunts cause problems. The novel read like a second draft that needed a third pass – writing not tight enough, plot holes too big, characters deflated.
  34. Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing: This is Capote’s first novel, written in the 40’s, but unpublished until 2005. I read this in a blink. It’s a story of the times – wealthy New York girl having an affair with a working class Jewish boy – and it’s written with all the jittery drama of golden age Hollywood. Capote is young here, flexing his voice and reveling in his language. As a young writer, I love reading the early works of literary titans.
  35. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: The first Hemingway I read was A Farewell to Arms, and it was an electric experience. I didn’t know language could do what that novel did. Reading this novel, though, made me understand why people complain Hemingway – he writes whiny indulgences of the wealthy and vain. Not my favorite from the Western canon.
  36. J.R. Moehringer’s Sutton: I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years, and when I finally started reading it, I wished I hadn’t waited so long. Willie Sutton, first FBI Most Wanted, was released from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969, after having his sentence commuted, and he gave one newspaper interview the following day. Told in a series of flashback, Moehringer reimagines that interview and Sutton’s early life as a love story. It’s not a great novel in a critical sense – it relies on sympathy, sentimentality, and stock myths about pre-war gangsters – but I was swept up by the story, and by Moehringer’s clipped, swift prose.
  37. Sarah Pekkanen’s These Girls: As a teenager, I really liked the idea of beach read books about girls and their girlfriends and the boyfriends who never quite measure up. Every few months, I’d borrow a stack from the library, and never once was I able to read more than one of these books. This novel was written in that same vein. Three girls, connected through the New York City magazine work (and one hunky writer) deal with heartbreak, insecurities, secrets etc., etc., etc. I found the story vapid, and even its girls looking out for girls message did little for me. I grabbed this book on the way out the door as I were rushed to catch a flight to make it to a funeral. It was a comfort read that gave little comfort.
  38. Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: The cult of Cheryl Strayed is real, and I live on the fringes of it. I think she is a beautiful writer, and can often cut to the heart of human experience. As an advice giver, truth teller, wisdom mama for the millennial generation, I have less patience for her. I read this book slowly over about a month, because taking in all of it without a break would have been too much for me, but on a whole, I loved the book. For all my big-hearted optimism, I can be very cynical, and every now and again, it’s good to rein in the princess of darkness and let the sun shine.
  39. Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean: This was the first book I ever read for review (you can read it here), and a very good one to start with. A novel about a Colombian-American woman seeking freedom and redemption from the sins of her family and her former life. The plot is wide ranging, pulling narratives of immigration and dislocation, romance and wilderness, prison and passion, but at the heart is this question about what it mean for a person to be free. A very contemplative and, ultimately, hopeful novel, with a fluid, graceful voice.
  40. Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?: Remember what I said about liking to read funny women write about themselves? Mindy Kaling’s second memoir is a little more traditional than her first (and I liked that), but just as smart and funny. She focuses on her adulthood and post-success career, and hits all the big subjects – body image, dating, celebrity-hood. The reason I love reading funny women write about themselves is the heart of this book: Because it’s a good goddamn thing to hear women recognize and applaud their own successes.
  41. Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People: My Halloween ghost story mystery, this novel was not spooky enough or mysterious enough for me. I did, however, love the inspiration for the book. From the dedication that McMahon wrote to her daughter: “Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods…’Sometimes it just happens.'”img_7760
  42. Emma Donoghue’s The WonderThis was the first novel I’ve read by Donoghue – people have been recommending Room to be for years, but I’ve never actually read it – and I think that tempered my reaction to this novel. It was good, and I really enjoyed it, but it was not the extraordinary work of genius that it’s been lauded. It’s a story about an Irish-Catholic girl who has been fasting for four months, and one nurse’s attempt to discover the trick behind the fast, and save the girl’s life. This was a very good story told very well, but for a novel that deals with themes as complex as faith, devotion, and duty, I was disappointed that Donoghue didn’t leave the reader more room to mediate on them. Read my longer review here.
  43. Amy Poehler’s Yes PleaseMy adoration of Amy Poehler is, I’m sure, one of the reasons I adored this book so much. It was the very first book I read in 2016, and all year long, I found myself returning to pieces of this memoir. She is as fresh and funny and frank as you could hope a celebrity to be, but she’s also wise about being an artist, and being a woman, and being a human. This book was enjoyable, but more than that, it was valuable.

Books I’m Still Reading: Born to Run. Reading Bruce Springsteen’s prose is beautiful, and moving, and a little bit like sitting in church…but it’s taking me forever and a month to get through. This book will be on the 2017 round-up.

What did you read this year? What should I read next?