I answered the question by sharing my story, by putting my words out there, and engaging (with the internet) in an honest and authentic way.
It’s been stilted lately, though, this little blog-o-mine. And I’ve struggled to figure out why.
Last week, I enjoyed my first two days at Leadership Marshfield, a training program put on through the Marshfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MACCI) focused on enhancing the ability of potential community leaders to function effectively. It was an amazing experience and I’m really excited to continue with the program over the next 7 months… but it’s already had an impact.
On the second day of the two day retreat, we were instructed to prepare to share our personal leadership hero(es) with the group… with a prop. Naturally, on my way home from day one, I stopped at the (brand spanking new and beautiful) Everett Roehl Marshfield Public Library to check out a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. (Don’t get me wrong, I own it, of course… but a Kindle just doesn’t make a terribly effective prop, in my opinion.) It was actually on the cart behind the circulation desk to be reshelved, which made my heart happy knowing someone else had recently had their hands on it, and I brought it with me the next day.
The next morning, I stood up in front of the group and talked about my two leadership heroes:
(1) Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, who changed my entire perspective about what it really means to engage in my life, my workplace, and my community. She taught me not to be ashamed or afraid of what and who I am, to value myself for my talents and my passions, and to move forward, with gusto, whenever I’m able.
(2) Ronda Kopelke, Director of the Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach, who showed me what an amazing manager and leader should look like, up close and in practice. She continues to teach me (literally daily) what it means to really care about the people around you and to help them understand that you do. She’s also shown me how to be solution-oriented and engage with people in a positive, respectful, relationship-focused manner.
I sat back down, and then Shelley from Roehl popped up (sharing at Leadership Marshfield is popcorn-style… mmmmm… popcorn) and was mad/glad that I stole her thunder/had the same leadership role model as her. Again, my heart, so glad!
I thought a lot about Sheryl Sandberg that day, chatted with Shelley about her and about Lean In at the ROPES course (yes, I did the mother effing high ropes!! impressed? I am! go me!) and thought about what it was that reading that book had done for me and how it had changed my trajectory in the first place.
Sheryl Sandberg was the one who had asked me (and the millions and millions of other readers of Lean In) that question that started it all: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
And I did those things. A lot of them. The blog three years ago. The ROPES course three days ago.
But I had never thought about the converse question:
What does it look like when you’re living in fear?
I know the answer now. Not on purpose. Not because I want to. But I look back on the last year and I can see, so clearly, what it looks like when I am afraid and I choose to live there.
I run. Literally, metaphorically. All of the above. I ran from my life and from everything that hurt and was scary. I ran and ran and ran. A marathon. Until I broke my foot (not literally, I just pulled a ligament, but it hurts like a b, so there’s that). I ate my way through Festival Foods to run from feelings and stopped vacuuming my floors. I ran from real life. I said yes to everything and anything at work to run from free time and I have ensured that I’ve had none over these past several months. No time to think or dwell, only run. From one assignment to the next. One workout to the next. One bag of chips (or box of candy, carton of ice cream, etc) to the next.
I even ran from writing and sharing and speaking and connecting. So much of me was just so tender and everything and anything could be salt in the wound without warning.
I have been afraid.
Of what, though, really? Grief after a miscarriage is one thing, but fear? I mean, fear that it would happen again would be rational… but you have to get pregnant first for that to be a possibility… getting pregnant is even less my strong suit than staying pregnant, so what then?
The what, I have to assume, is failure. That infertility wins and this is it. And “it” is failure. A life of settling because I can’t do the thing I want to do. That I felt so strongly I was supposed to do. Meant to do even. Family is the next step — love, (schoooooool), marriage… baby carriage. Even my childhood rhymes said so!
It hurts to fail. And I can do physical pain, but emotional? Nope. I hate it. It feels bad to be jealous, too. And I felt like I had replaced my rose-colored glasses with green ones, everywhere I looked ultrasounds and bumps and even literal baby carriages that weren’t mine. Might very well never be. I don’t like those feelings. I don’t like to fail. So I ran, cowered, stopped vacuuming.
This September, the anniversary of all the bad stuff came and went. The missing heartbeat on September 11th. The surgery on the 16th. The black days immediately after when I felt like I couldn’t breath… and didn’t want to. A year later, I’m still here. Still moving. And slowly recognizing a haze of fear. Recognition.
I take you back to the scene in Love Actually when Mark confesses his completely unrequited love to Juliet (yes, I’ve literally already said this) and then walks away, saying to himself, “Enough. Enough now.” It’s like that. Just like that.
Time to move on. To stop being afraid. Or, at the very least, to stop running from it. To face fear head on. Like Brene Brown and FDR’s man in the arena (highly recommend Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly). But also like Shana Niequist in Present Over Perfect (my newest and truest literary love affair) — sitting with it, even when it’s uncomfortable. Letting myself feel it and living my life anyway.
We have a lot of moments in life that are before and after type moments. Things that define us. But sometimes the moment is longer than a moment. Sometimes the moment is more like a year. For me, it was a year of fear. A year spent running, but getting nowhere. Except back to life. And that’s ok.
Another two months without a post, despite working pretty feverishly. The broken bits of me have been so in control. So many days spent tending to my shattered heart blow after blow.
“He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams… I’m going to become bitter and distrustful because one person betrayed me. I’m going to hate those who have found their treasure because I never found mind. And I’m going to hold on to what little I have, because I’m too insignificant to conquer the world.”
But, struggling or not, I continue to work slowly and deliberately toward a new and fresh sense of clarity. A shift in my own personal paradigm about what matters. About what makes life worth it.
“I’ve learned things from the sheep, and I’ve learned things from crystal, he thought. I can learn something from the desert, too. It seems old and wise.”
The big shift: I’m done with silver linings.
If I were running for president, you could call me a flip flopper. But good news! I’m not now and probably won’t ever. So… since I don’t actually have to worry about what the press and populous think of me, I’m free to change my mind all I want. Also to inhale. And to have sexual relations with whomever I want.
I could have made much less boring choices…
But. Back to that change of mind, which was my point… change of heart, really.
“Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.”
I started this blog on the premise of silver linings. The idea that, no matter how awful something seems, there’s always something good hidden inside — a pretty picture in the tapestry. And I believed it wholeheartedly. Mostly. For a while.
But there were some cases where it just didn’t fit. Like when I wrote about the death of my friend Nate. I said, even back then, that sometimes there really is no silver lining. The first crack in my neatly crafted narrative.
More recently, as I’ve struggled through infertility, miscarriage, hopelessness and depression, I’ve become less and less convinced of the master plan/pretty picture and looked harder, further, and wider for something else.
Even in this little video, where forest animals animate a snippet of Brene Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability, empathy, and compassion, a silver lining comes up as kind of a gut punch… so in constantly looking for one, was I inadvertently delivering the punch to myself?
I’ve never exactly been known for self kindness, but this seemed like a whole new low.
I was searching for something, but maybe I was searching for the wrong thing.
“‘Every second of the search is an encounter with God,’ the boy told his heart. ‘When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve known that every hour was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.'”
It started when my brother-in-law picked up my copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning — a book written in two parts, the first a description of Frankl’s experiences as a clinical psychiatrist imprisoned in a series of Nazi concentration camps, the second a description of logotherapy, or the pursuit of meaning in life.
It’s a tiny book that packs a powerful punch. But in a way, I feel like the short length actually does it a disservice. When I was reading it, I was incredibly immersed, convinced it would change my life… but it didn’t take me terribly long to read, and I moved on relatively quickly.
As weeks and months went by and I slowly moved past the miscarriage and into another round of IVF, I felt really ready. But when I went through all of it again and still failed, I found myself back at the bottom of the pit, wallowing, binge eating, crying, so quick to anger, frustrated with everything and everyone — convinced that I am worthless, pathetic, and pointless. But also desperate to claw my way back out (and unable to run another marathon to do so).
Sometimes, like with the marathon, my desperation makes me almost manic. (I realize, of course, that I’m not using that term in a clinically correct way — but it is definitely a frenzied feeling, the need for action, to fix things and fix them NOW.) I thought about the book that Stu had ultimately taken home with him and chose that as my starting point. Because if the problem is that one lacks a point, then it seems as though the solution would be to find one, to search for meaning, yes?
“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it is better to listen to what it has to say.”
And so I read. I read and read and read… and am still reading. (See book suggestions below.) But the most important thing that all this reading has done for me to date is to really shift my focus. Away from trying to figure out why the cloud is there, from trying to paint the inside of it silver… and instead, trying to find meaning in the storm.
Searching for silver linings can be a fruitful personal pursuit and I’ve done an awful lot of it; sometimes they even exist to be found. It’s shallow, though. And I have come to believe that the search for meaning is more consistently productive and more fulfilling in the long run. Not only because humans are hard-wired for meaning (Rorshach test, anyone? no? What about Jesus in toast?), but also because meaning is determined from within rather than without. As such, meaning is within my control and subject to my will, not the fickle will of a chance-driven universe.
I know that to say meaning is in our control is contentious… and I was unsure of it at first. But according to the experts in logotherapy that I have read (manically, maniacially?) over the past several weeks, there are three paths to meaning:
Creative (what you make)
Experiential (what you do)
Attitudinal (how you feel)
While all three are technically equivalent, attitudinal is the one of the three that is always at our disposal. No matter what. Even in a concentration camp. Even in the depths of the darkest pit. We always get to choose our attitude.
“That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”
Importantly, choosing our attitude is decidedly not the same things as putting on rose colored glasses or pasting a smile on your face. Because meaning is not the same thing as a silver lining.
For example, I truly believe that there is no silver lining to infertility. I am not going to wake up someday and realize that omg, it was so awesome that I spent five years unsuccessfully trying to start a family or that my miscarriage was the result of a baby that just “wasn’t meant to be.” I will forever grieve those things; they have changed me on a fundamental level. BUT I can find meaning in sharing my struggles. I can find meaning in supporting the women who struggled before me, alongside me, and will struggle after me. I can find meaning in the fact that the family I might eventually have someday will be intentional in a way that not many families truly are. I can find meaning in the education I received through the process — about how love changes hearts, about my own seemingly infinite capacity for hope, the necessity of equality in family building for same-sex couples, the universality of human struggle no matter what form it may take. And perhaps most importantly, I have been given endless opportunities to clarify my values and live an authentic life centered on the things that mean the most to me.
“The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was.”
After I miscarried, my dad told me that I’d find meaning someday — because the universe was teeming with it. It felt a little like a platitude, but I knew that it wasn’t, because my dad doesn’t speak in platitudes. He was just 10 steps ahead of me down this road, I think. Maybe that’s because it’s a road that can only really be known by experience. By crossing the desert, and listening to your heart as you go.
“‘Everyone has his or her own way of learning things,’ he said to himself. ‘His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that.'”
Maybe you believe that meaning is to be found in a gift from the universe. And you can keep looking for your signs, omens, and silver linings. It’s ok if there’s where you think you’ll find meaning. But I know that I won’t. I can’t believe in meant-to-bes — because if I do, I have to believe that I’m not meant to be a mom. And I can’t believe in #blessed because what does that make me? #cursed? And I know now that silver linings are desperate and unfounded strokes of luck that seem like meaning, but really aren’t. Meaning is something more than that. And meaning is what I truly desire, in my heart of hearts.
Most importantly, when you find meaning in your life… you cannot also be pointless. A meaningful life is never pointless.
“No matter what he does, every person on earth play a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.”
I’m getting there. To a point where, on more days than not, I can see meaning. I can feel it. And at the very least, that allows be to peek my head up over the edge of the pit.
Last week, on the brink of pregnancy, an implantation scheduled for two days away, I got a phone call from my clinic… canceling the whole thing. Nearly 60 days of drugs and injections, thousands more dollars, hopes as high as hopes could be over our 4 – 5 fertilized eggs and it all came crashing down one more time. I cried. There was snot. I had to call Seth. I went to the office next door to get kleenexes and comfort from a coworker. I worked late. I went home. I ate marshmallows and cried some more while my sweet pup licked tears from my face.
I experienced legitimate grief. Disappointment. Frustration. I dangled my feet over the edge of the pit and looked into the abyss. And then I took a deep breath. And another. Even thought it was nearly 8 pm, I got up, I went into the kitchen, and I cooked myself a nice dinner. I vegged, watched The Bachelorette while I ate. I snuggled Curly on the couch and went to bed. I knew my life wasn’t over. And by the end of it all, I knew we still weren’t quite done trying — because our hearts are broken, but they still beat family… family… family…
“The boy and his heart had become friends, and neither was capable now of betraying the other.”
When my dad told me that the universe teems with meaning, I thought of silver lined clouds and blessings-in-disguise. But I really understand meaning now and I’m letting it into my heart, day by day, little by little. It’s a better way… for me.
[All quotations above are from The Alchemist by Paul Coelho — with thanks to Nicole M. for the perfect and timely recommendation. This girl knows what’s up.]
Recommended Reading (if you like any of these ideas):
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy by Viktor Frankl
Meaning in Suffering: Comfort in Crisis through Logotherapy by Elisabeth Lukas and Joseph B. Fabry
The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
For my upcoming birthday, I’m building myself a library. A special little space full of coziness and books. (And when I’m in it, a big old nerd!) A space to read, think, relax, unwind or wind up, depending on the book, maybe even write a little. And I’m pretty dang excited about it. All I need is the chair — and that’s going to be my birthday present from Seth. Something big enough so that should Curly choose to join me, there will plenty of space for the both of us.
Maybe a little side table for the lamp and cup of tea I envision at my side. My set up will face the fireplace, of course, for night time reading, and soak up the sun from the big window when it’s shining. But most importantly: the books. And I’m definitely an avid collector in that respect. Physically and mentally. I just soak them up, always have, always will. 2015 has been no exception in that respect, although it has been exceptional in a million other ways and because of that — books have been even more important than usual. They have consoled me and distracted me in a way nothing else possibly could and I am so grateful that comfort like that is always, always, always available. Words are so powerful. And well-timed words are probably the most powerful thing of all. I read some spectacular ones this year.
As I moved my most special books from their stacks, shelves, and cupboards into my new little library, I thought back to the Lincoln Later El library (I think it’s maybe called Brick now?) — where I spent all my lunchtimes many years ago. Sixth grade was probably my peak of loser-dom and recess was kind of a nightmare. So to avoid it, I reshelved books in the library. It was glorious to spend my lunch that way every day — handling the books, seeing what others were reading, getting ideas about what I should read next, and helping Mrs. Van-can’t-spell-the-rest a little bit at the same time. (But most importantly, avoiding the playground.) As I looked over my laundry baskets of collected books, I thought back on those lunch times, about the Dewey Decimal System, and how I would organize things in my own little space. A story about the stories I’ve read began to emerge and it suddenly seemed like an appropriate way to sum up the year I’ve had… my mental shelves are bursting, after all. So a little recap of 2015 — in a literary context:
Even before it started, I was quite aware that 2015 was going to be a tough year. Our last round of IUI was in December of 2014 and when it was unsuccessful (again) we knew that IVF was next. I was unhappy and I wasn’t alone. My sister-in-law, Kayla, and I were both dealing with stuff, feeling unhappy, and so we thought we’d read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin together. We started and I thought the research on happiness was fascinating, but we quickly petered out — I don’t know. It just wasn’t really for me, maybe it was the rigidity? Under normal circumstances, I’m a big fan of plans and dates and times and the like, but there’s something about the beauty of evolution and letting things naturally develop over time that I guess I find preferable. Happiness is always a worthy goal, to be sure, but I guess I prefer to take a step, see what happens, and let that inform the next step over making a 12 month plan with its 12 pre-planned steps and putting checks in the boxes as I accomplish them. (Gasp! I love to check boxes! A revelation that that does not apply here.) I’m not sure what Kayla’s thoughts on the topic are (note to self: ask Kayla for her thoughts), but I think the read was worth it just to better understand the science of happiness — the idea of a set point that you can’t sway too much and the notion that little things can make a surprisingly big difference when they become part of the every day.
One of those little things that makes a huge difference for me is audiobooks. I subscribed to Audible in the middle of 2014 and started listening to books while walking, running, mowing the lawn, sewing, driving long distances, etc, and ho-ly cow, I’m so in love. While there’s no doubt in my mind that reading is a worthwhile activity, I somehow always either felt guilty for reading while I could/should have been doing something else or, conversely, while doing something else hobby-ish, I’d rather be reading. Audible has solved that problem completely — now I can do both. This year alone, I’ve listened to All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Murial Barbery, Lightning by Dean Koontz, Saint Odd by Dean Koontz, One Door Away from Heaven by Dean Koontz (so yeah, I’m a big DK fan, and his books are so fast paced that they’re some of the best I’ve found for running to), The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Awakenings by Oliver Sacks (although admittedly, I haven’t finished this one yet — probably better for something like driving than running), The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (which I hated so much, but we chatted about that before), all three All Souls Trilogy books by Deborah Harkness (A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life), The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and, at present, Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz (his newest — yay yay yay). I also listened to Scrum by Jeff and J. J. Sutherland. That one was not my choice. It’s a book about a business productivity technique that Seth wanted to listen to and he talked me into listening along as we drove across the UP in September. It was interesting, but not super duper applicable to my lone wolf work environment. On the plus side, however, it was in exchange for that listening experience that I talked him into listening to The Five Love Languages with me on our next drive to and from Madison. As far as self-help goes, it was ridiculously cheesy and almost alarmingly intuitive, yet, Seth and I had an excellent time mocking the self-important and overly serious author and, honestly, recognizing the primary way in which we tend to hear and speak love (me in words, Seth in action) was excellent for us both. Five hours of car time well spent! As far as the rest go All the Light was so beautiful and so hard, but so important and I’m so glad I read it; Orange is the New Black was interesting and informative, definitely a good look at the broken prison system in America, but probably not what you would expect if you just watched the show — sometimes I felt like I was in prison listening to the overly long descriptions of kind of boring things, like prison cheescake and salad bars, a thousand times over; and all the Dean Koontzes were delightful as expected, except that I’m craving so much more about the smooth and blue than the final Odd Thomas book had to offer. The others warrant special attention, however.
The Invention of Wings and The Elegance of the Hedgehog were two of the best books I read all year. They’re both amazing, thought provoking, fascinating. And, while I didn’t think of it really until now, both have in some respect shaped the way I feel about life’s unexpected turns as well as its meaning. Like, so much so, that I should really go back and read Elegance again with an eye to the point of existing, as I’ve lamented over recently. I was so annoyed with both narrators at first — the self-important adolescent and the chip-on-her-shoulder concierge. But they grew and I loved them for it so much in the end. So so much. Anyone can grow, everyone has purpose. Even if just for a moment. Oh, love, love, love! Similarly, the main character in Wings seems so naive at first — and she is, I suppose, because she’s 11 and it’s basically your job at 11 to be naive. But growth and change and heartbreak and breaking hearts, standing up for what’s right for others and recognizing what’s right for yourself, all of that. It’s just beautiful. One of my favorite, favorites. So much so that after I was gifted a second copy (thanks, sweet Ellen! you do know me well!), I re-gifted it to my dear friend Marie and then again at Christmas to my friend Deb. And now you should all read it. Because it’s so so good. (Btw, Sue Monk Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, which you know you loved, and that should be an even better recommendation for The Invention of Wings.)
Speaking of good fiction… I also devoured The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and think it was truly the best of the best that I read all year. It’s a World War II-based story about two sisters who are both simultaneously jealous of one another and insecure about themselves, in the end realizing that they’re both incredibly courageous in two distinctly different ways. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful story. Simultaneously heart breaking and heart making. This is probably the book I’m the most insistent that other people read — when Aimee said she was reading books with bird titles I was so excited for her to get to this one, I told Erika to start here when she was looking for recommendations, I sent it to Melissa after she had surgery, and gave Marie a copy for Christmas. These are people I love very, very much and this is a book I love very, very much. Definitely my 2015 Must Read. Oh! And one more “deep fiction” winner — At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen, the author of Water for Elephants knocked it out of the park once again with another fascinating look back in time, although this time it was the Loch Ness craze in war battered Scotland rather than the depression-era circus scene. Loved.
But it’s not just prize-winning, super deep fiction that I love… I just love, love, love a good story, and twice this year, Lara Lacombe delivered, with both Lethal Lies and Killer Exposure. The biggest problem with Lara’s books is that if you have even the tiniest inkling of nerdy girl-ness inside you or potential for enjoyment of romantic suspense, you better start reading on a Friday night so that by the time you have to go back to work, you’re done with the book and ready to come up for air. I can never put them down and I think that Killer Exposure was actually my favorite that Lara has written so far. It’s crazy to me how addictive her stories are! Similarly, I devoured lots of Dean Koontz, as mentioned above, including my old hard copy of Life Expectancy, which again, proved itself to be my favorite Koontz of all time. It’s just SO good. I also forced Erika to read it. And she loved it. N = 2, must be true! I also loved One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, which wasn’t quite as amazing as Me Before You, but still excellent and a good reminder that when life is super crazy hard, we can, and should, lean on each other; Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal, a race-exploring New Orleans-based book with super likable and interesting characters; Invisible Ellen by Shari Shattuck because I’m a total sucker for stories about fat girls finding acceptance, friendship, worth, purpose, self-love, etc (a la Jemima J by Jane Green), and this book totally fits that bill — brilliant and interesting and funny and witty and super feel-good; and Lila by Marilynne Robinson, which is apparently a stand alone part of the Gilead series that I obviously need to read more of. Sadly, however, not all the fiction I read delivered quite so well and I did find myself pretty disappointed in Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin, probably because it was my understanding that Le Guin was a science fiction writer and I just couldn’t reconcile my expectations with the reality of the book — although if I really wanted to read about a woman bogged down by unreasonable expectations that had to overcome great adversity, particularly within the context of her unexpected husband, I’d re-read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (a total masterpiece) instead. I was also disappointed by The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner, which is so sad because it’s a legitimately brilliant idea for a story — I just didn’t really dig the execution, I think. It could have been such a lovely little love story wrapped up in history, but instead felt cheesy. I feel like I want to read the same story with an author like Sarah Gruen or Sue Monk Kidd instead, which seems like such a mean thing to say, but it’s my truth. Sorry, Susan.
Perhaps my two most personally important fiction reads, however, actually fall under a broader category of books — namely, those I read in the wake of grief and really helped me to cope. I re-read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series this year, as we’ve discussed, and while I thought it was about making my maybe baby magical, it actually ended up being an important thing to have done for myself, as I learned only in the wake of my miscarriage. Interestingly, my friend Kristen also recommended to me an adolescent-fiction-slash-graphic-novel called A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and it kind of had a similar story line — a young man’s mother is dying and he calls up a monster to save her, except, the monster wasn’t actually there to save his mother. The monster was there to save him. It’s a quick read, but ridiculously profound and I loved it so much. Probably my number one recommendation in the context of grief specifically. It’s beautiful. I sobbed. So did Kristen. I highly recommend this book. I also recently finished the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness as I mentioned above. Had I read anything about them before diving in, I probably wouldn’t have even stepped a toe in the water — the vampire, witch, demon deal sounds a bit too Twilight-y to suit my HP devotee style (Hermione for life!!), but my mom’s friend and former school social worker, Linda, recommended them to me as I walked and walked and walked through IVF and I am so grateful that she did because I absolutely adore these books. History and magic and love and family and meaning and spirituality and all of the above. Love, love, love, love, love. At nearly 30 hours a piece, it’s impressive to think how many miles I must have run and walked while listening to these three books. The main character even grieved a miscarriage at one point. It was perfection.
In addition to the grief-important fiction, I’ve also read a lot of grief-important non-fiction. Early after my miscarriage, Aunt Becky sent me a copy of To Live Again by Catherine Marshall and I walked with Ms. Marshall for a good long while — in Hawaii, on my way home, many difficult nights, and she’s proven to me over and over again why I find her Prayer of Relinquishment so meaningful, it’s how she lives her whole life. It’s the place she found after the greatest of tragedies, in the wake of the most difficult situation, and she and her words are really an amazing source of strength. Similarly, and then again so completely not similarly at all because there really is no comparing the Catherine Marshall of the 1950s to the Jenny Lawson of now, I also read and loved Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy this year. We talked about the brilliant Bloggess already, but to bring the point home one more time — to move from grief into a state of long-standing, long-battled, hard fought mental illness is not a surprise. Depression is always there waiting for me and I live with it, through it, in spite of it, every single day of my life. Some periods are harder than others and I am not alone. To have collaborated with my healthcare providers to decide to use medication, to participate in talk therapy, those things are not weaknesses — they are strengths, they are good decisions, they are active participation in my own wellness and growth. Also, Jenny Lawson is freaking hilarious and for someone to fit jokes in amongst all that good stuff? Well, that just seems rather amazing, doesn’t it?
(Sad sidenote: hoping for non-fiction goodness a la Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling and Jenny Lawson and the like, I also picked up Yes Please by Amy Pohler at the Honolulu airport after I busted my Kindle on the beach. Unfortunately, I was disappointed — I feel guilty for even saying so, but it just felt so name droppy and gushy about the amazingness of her amazing friends without being particularly hilarious, except when she basically says, “trust me, we were all so hilarious”… I guess you had to be there? So sad about this… but it’s the truth, and it sits half read in a stack next to my bed. Sorry, Amy. This doesn’t change the way I feel about Parks and Rec. Promise.)
I also super loved The Shack by William P. Young and found it particularly encouraging to read Young’s super fascinating imagining of God the trinity. God as black woman, even if only as a representation, among other anti-institutional and/or anti-dogmatic sentiments, has this book frequently labeled as heresy, which I love so much because it says so much about the people who label fiction (a la the Dan Brown books) as such, don’t you think? But besides that, it’s just such an interesting read. I especially loved the way God, the black woman, greets the main character when he first shows up:
Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms, lifting him clear off his feet and spinning him around like a little child. And all the while she was shouting his name — “Mackenzie Allen Phillips”– with the ardor of someone seeing a long-lost and deeply loved relative. She finally set him back on Earth and, with her hands on his shoulders, pushed him back as if to get a good look at him.
“Mack, look at you!” she fairly exploded. “Here you are, and so grown up. I have really been looking forward to seeing you face-to-face. It is so wonderful to have you here with us. My, my, my, how I do love you!” And with that she wrapped herself around him again…
… He felt the presence of love. It was warm, inviting, melting.
…and I lose it. I highlighted that passage when I gave this book to my dad for Christmas (even though he’d already read it) because I wanted to make sure that he knows that that’s what it feels like to be his daughter. I just loved the things this book made me think and feel and consider. If you’re at all interested in spirituality sans dogma, in spite of dogma, or to make you think about dogma, this is a really good read. Also, spiritually speaking, I super loved The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I started reading it right after my friend Aimee‘s mom (I love all Rathbuns so much — like, they’re basically my sports team and I should get myself a jersey to wear) pinned it and shortly thereafter, my mom bought me a copy that she then kept for herself because she loved it so much too. Brene Brown is a shame researcher, a true academician and expert in psychology, and also one of the greatest spiritual thinkers/writers I’ve ever encountered. Imperfection is all about being who you really are, warts and all, why that’s hard, and why it’s so necessary. There was so much good packed into the book that I feel like I need to have it with me at all times as a reference manual — things to constantly think about until completely internalized. Similarly, Savor by Shauna Niequist is a daily devotional, or perhaps more accurately a book of daily reflections, chock full of this kind of thing — ideas about giving yourself grace, being present in the moment, etc, that are totally worth thinking about. Beautiful things, every day. And something I think I could read over and over again every day in perpetuity.
At present, I’m reading Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America by Margot Adler as quickly as I can and tiny bits of Praying with Celtic Holy Women by Bridget Mary Meehan and Regina Madonna Oliver on a daily basis. The Moon is a really interesting historical narrative on polytheistic practices in this country over the past century, as well as where they may have come from in the more distant past. I got interested in the topic after reading about some of these Celtic Holy Women who were really fascinating early adopters of Christianity. I wish I had more time to spend deep diving into all the millions of areas I get interested in because both of these books make me ask more and more questions and want to read more and more books. I suppose that’s what my little library and all this spare time are for.
I approach 2016 knowing that we’re in for another tough year. My 32nd birthday is nearly here, which means my ovaries are rapidly approaching what the fertility specialist appears to believe is the end for me in my fertility journey. We’re doing IVF again in the spring and I know full well what that means now. In addition, I also know that even in the unlikely event of pregnancy, miscarriage is not only a very real possibly, but a pretty likely outcome. I know what that feels like too. But I’m not ready to give up on this path quite yet, so we head into the new year with our eyes wide open and our scars still red and fresh. My mental library has a whole new annex and my physical library will be a place of refuge when I need it. So back to my dear Hagrid, one more time — what’s coming will come and we’ll greet it when it does. Fortunately, for me, I can greet it like my beloved Hermione, frizzy haired and nose in a book.
Au revior, 2015! Any recommendations for stocking my shelves in 2016???
I’m about write a review of a book narrated by Satan. Incidentally, Satan appears to have taken up residence in my THROAT for the time being. Moving down into my chest. Woe. Is. Me.
More importantly: woe is my husband who ended up sleeping in the spare room last night because I could not stop the coughing. Couldn’t stop. Satan!
But enough about viral-style satan… and on to the literary version.
Remember once upon a time when I told you about the 1,001 book challenge? It’s still happening just… differently. Not exactly as anticipated, but awesome nevertheless. It kind of morphed over time and I really enjoy the Between the Covers Facebook group it turned into because it gives me a place to talk about really interesting books with really interesting people that I might never have read or spoken to, respectively, in the absence of random internet-based connections.
I hated it so much. So so so much. For almost the whole book. But only almost.
Because in the end, I loved it. And I’m so so so glad that I not only started it, but especially that I finished it. Because wow.
So, first, why I hated it.
Basically, it boils down to the fact that Satan, who narrates the vast majority of the book while inhabiting the body of mere mortal Declan Gunn, is an arrogant a-hole.
I know, it’s not terribly surprising– Satan as an a-hole. Yet for some reason, I expected Satan as the narrator to try to make himself at least somewhat likable. I mean, doesn’t everyone want people to like them, to want to listen? Even Satan?
Apparently not. And Satan the narrator was pompous and annoying and condescending and awful in every way. No better way to say it: an arrogant a-hole. I hated him so much… and I really had a hard time reading the musings of someone I hated so very much. For quite I while, I just wanted him to get to the dang point so it could be over.
However, as I endured, looking up big, fancy, literary words that I suspected were placed in the text largely to make me feel like an idiot, some intriguing themes started to jump out at me, to capture my attention, and to make me hate reading the book a little less…
The notion of not recognizing how painful a pain really is until you’ve left it.
Thoughts about the way our very human senses allow us to perceive the very human world we live in with just the slightest hint of something else… something beyond.
And then, most strikingly, most excitingly and beautifully, forgiveness.
Oh my gosh. The idea of forgiveness is what redeemed the book for me. Absolutely and completely. It was powerful enough for me to go from hate to love in mere pages and I’m generally not super good at changing my mind… so that’s something.
As I said, the premise of the book is that God offers Satan the opportunity to inhabit a mortal being for a month, as a trial run to the big redemptive offer of living out life as a human in exchange for reentry into heaven. Satan ends up inhabiting the body of a man named Declan Gunn following Declan’s suicide attempt (or success, perhaps?) and in Declan’s body, Satan uses his mortal fingers to type out a manuscript (amongst use of other body parts in rather Satan-ly ways). Satan as Declan is, as I said, a complete and total a-hole. Other a-holes love him. He has a following and friends and success. Everyone is awful. But unable to shake all of Declan’s humanity, Satan finds himself continually fixated on Declan’s former lover. The woman who broke Declan’s heart. Broke Declan himself. Shattered him. And just to spite Declan while he can, because he’s Satan, Satan decides to go do the very worst thing he can think of — forgive her. As Declan. And he does.
And then: FEELINGS.
SO MANY FEELINGS. So many feelings that all the drugs and all the alcohol could not make them go away. Feelings of every sort– good and bad and ugly and… human. Forgiveness, even in spite, came with soooooo many feeeeeelings. More than he could bare. More than he could understand. Or comprehend. Or allow. Too much.
After this powerful demonstration, Satan had the choice to go on living out Declan Gunn’s life to it’s natural end with the promise of that very same thing from God waiting on the other side — forgiveness, grace. Or, he could return to hell. And, believe it or not, from Satan’s perspective, I can see some advantages to hell… a freedom, if you will, that didn’t exist for him otherwise. I won’t spoil the end for you, but I would not have seen it coming. And just as a bit of icing on the cake, the former angel (now human, long story) Raphael took a turn narrating a bit of the book. And the tone was completely different, suggesting to me that the arrogance, the a-hole-ish-ness at the beginning was really just Glen Duncan’s way of portraying Satan, making him completely and wholly unlikable, and that’s just impressive.
Grace is something I really like thinking about. I talk about it all the time. But never like this. Never ever like this. It really was spectacular, this description. Coming from the most arrogant a-hole of all.
In this new format of what was the 1001 Book Challenge, we’re basically a disparate group of people from all over the country taking turns picking books, reading them, and then having a bitty little Facebook-based discussion, always with the option to participate or not. And dang, though this was not a book I would have chosen on my own, not in a million years, I sure am glad I got to read it… and I am very grateful to this little group for that! Highly recommend if you’re interested in something very different!
Dang, guys… you and your friends and your mom and your dog are all basically freaking awesome. I write some of the craziest, silliest, saddest, weirdest, yet super honest, stuff and you’re awesome about it. Every time. The more whatever-est it is, the more supportive you (and your friends and mom and dog) are and I’m so super grateful. Huge props from me… and my therapist, who agrees that the catharsis of Under the Tapestry is probably the number one factor keeping me out of the loony bin. I mean, I assume he’d agree based on his positive comments regarding the post and the response to it. However, “loony bin” isn’t a phrase he tends to use all that often (i.e. ever– professionalism or whatever). So thanks for that. I’ll let you know either way in a couple of weeks and we can all cry happy or sad tears, eat happy or sad ice cream (with lactaid), and think happy or sad thoughts together.
When I say cathartic, I mean it, and it’s amazing how fessing up to that one dark moment seems to have released so many additional words that have been queuing up for a while. (Queuing because it’s my goal in life to become British. Obviously.)
Except it’s a little more nuanced than that because I don’t find being overly familiar with someone whose willing to be overly familiar right back a problem. For example, I’ll probably make a lame joke if we try to talk about the weather for 10 minute at a party, but if I run into you in the bathroom and you confess that you’re suffering from diarrhea, we’re basically going to hit it off right away. Probably I’ll tell you about all the GI distress I’ve struggled with and we’ll laugh and say, “ha ha ho ho hee hee– clearly we were meant to meet like this!”
(Quick fun fact– I just got a text from a brand new, way too quickly overly familiar friend that said “Well let’s just say maybe our meeting was meant to be.” With the exception of the “ha ha ho ho hee hee” I’m basically just writing from real life, yo.)
Books are what makes my introvert heart particularly happy because when you have read the same book as someone, you automatically have an intimate connection that you don’t have with just any random person on the street– no GI involvement necessary. And I think, after much consideration, that is why I like book clubs so very, very, very much.
It’s a social situation, that’s awkward, but it’s a bunch of other people who read the same book as you which means their mind has been in that same storied place and let every one of the same words and characters and thoughts and ideas tumble around in their brain just like you did. Maybe even some different thoughts or ideas about the very same words and characters. That’s intimacy right there. It’s also something non-small to talk about. An introvert-who-paradoxically-also-craves-social-connection’s dream.
So I basically love book clubs. I love everything about them. Everything except the social anxiety inducing process of identifying potential members, inviting identified potential members, and hosting a get together with all accepting invited identified potential members.
I guess you could say that it’s getting to the point of comfort with people that we can begin to relate over books that’s the hard part.
Despite the my awkwardness and the necessity to participate in uncomfortable activities (like talking to other humans who didn’t already know about my secret nerdiness) to get to the good part, I managed to start a third book club and we met for the first time a couple weeks ago to discuss The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.
Everything about a book club is truly a celebration of the nerd-tastic to me and I spared no expense on Saturday. While reading the book on my Kindle, I highlighted any mention of the snacks and drinks served by each host. At game time, I noted the highlights, looked up recipes, and managed (with the tremendous help of my dear friend Amy) to whip up a feast fit for even the picky perfectionist Jocelyn. Granted, we’re not classy enough for the wine selections mentioned in the book… but everything else! Moscato and sweet white and sparkling pink to be served over ice (am I making your teeth hurt?) for my crew!
We had creme de menthe squares and lemon bars and molasses cookies and almond crescent cookies and cheese and crackers and venison sausage (Wisconsin, yo… and Matt got a deer!) and bottle after bottle after bottle of delicious wine.
It was a delicious menu, to be sure, but I was a bit concerned going into the event because I didn’t just want to make and serve it all… I also wanted to eat it all! So I endeavored to make as much as I could gluten-free and dairy-free. That’s where Pamela comes in…
Pamela the miracle worker.
Pamela the business-woman.
Pamela the magician and creator of the most amazing gluten-free flour I’ve ever tried:
It says it can be substituted cup for cup for regular flour. Hard to believe, but in this case, finally true. The lemon bars, molasses cookies, and almond crescent cookies were all amazing… I don’t even think you’d know the difference if I didn’t tell you (although Seth swears that he can). Huge victory for me and by little buddy Noah this Christmas season– can’t wait to share all the recipes with his mom!
So Pamela was the first champ of the evening. I cannot recommend that amazing four highly enough if you struggle to bake gluten free!
And then came Bernadette. Not a flour. She’s the fiction.
At book club, people came and went… some stayed the whole time, others popped in for a bit and left early, but once everyone was all gathered around in my living room (doh! not enough comfy chairs!) we popped the movie version of the Jane Austen Book Club in and watched for our friends who hadn’t had a chance to read the whole book.
It’s the same general story, of course, by the characters in the movie were basically mutilated… especially Prudie’s poor husband Dean who really got the short end of the movie stick, I must say. But besides that, at the end of the night, as five girls remained (some of us tipsy, myself included), four of whom were introverts (Amy, let’s face it, you’re as extroverted as they come), we all decided that the best character in the movie, the one we all endeavor to be like, was Bernadette.
Granted, book Bernadette was probably a good twenty years older than movie Bernadette, but that didn’t change the fact that she was a woman who was 100% comfortable in her own skin… no matter what. And we all loved that. Who wouldn’t?
Maybe someday it will be the norm for us, that level of self-comfort. I hope so! But more importantly… it is my sincere hope that we, at the very least, become that way around one another in relatively short order. Wine will help at first, of course. Wine and gluten-free cookies. But a bunch of introverts out of their shell on account of books? Seems like a recipe for comfort to me.
Perhaps someday I’ll even write all of us into a book. A couple of teachers, an environmental policy specialist, a science writer, some doctors, a nurse, a healthcare administrator… and the recurring and fascinatingly flighty Sister Doctor. You’ll read it, right? Somebody’s going to need to start breeding dogs and dating a sci-fi enthusiast… then we’ll have it down.
Sometimes late at night when I’m having trouble falling asleep, I pull out my iPhone (terrible for sleep, I know!) and play the game Bookworm until I finally find myself drifting off. It started off as more of an obsession, of course, as all iPhone games do, but I eventually got millions of points and got bored of it and now it’s like counting sheep. Except when there’s a dang Q.
The basic premise of the game is to make words and get points without letting one of the flaming tiles get to the bottom of the board. If it does– BOOM! The whole thing explodes and it’s game over.
Q is, just as in Scrabble, kind of a toughy, but Bookworm actually gives you the u to go with it and counts that Q-U combo as two letters of the three letter minimum. After that, it becomes relatively easy to add an A, make the word “qua” and move on.
Except freaking QUA. What… the… heck???
I can’t stand words I just don’t get. It stresses me out.
CAN’T STAND IT.
It’s why I quit Words With Friends real quick.
You see, it’s not that I don’t believe that words I don’t understand are real words. I’m perfectly capable of looking them up, reading the definition, and moving on with my life. I’m also perfectly cool with made up, Dr. Suess-style words because generally I get them, even though they are for fake and have no true Websterian definition. (See, Webserian, I can even make up my own words. And you, intelligent reader, no doubt get what I mean.)
But qua? I just can’t handle it.
Obnoxious. Perhaps a few other sample sentences would help:
<discussing the story qua story> (Very helpful, Mirriam-Webster.com)
he’s hard to pin down if you get him on entertainment qua entertainment (Right, oxforddictionaries.com, very good)
It’s all clear now, eh?
Except it’s not to me. Granted, according to Google (what a sweet graph!), it’s an old word and usage has waned considerably over time.
But even in that case, I can usually appreciate a word anyway.
For example, I’m currently reading the book The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco as part of our 1001 book challenge. The book was first published in Italian in 1980 and translated into English in 1983 (love me some Wiki!), but takes place in the 14th century and is written accordingly. I’m super glad that I’m reading it on my Kindle because it allows me to quickly look up words I don’t already know or can’t figure out from the context… or those that I can figure out, but make me curious anyway. Like pudenda, another word for the external genital organs. It’s like the 14th century monk’s way of saying cock, in my mind anyway. And I get that.
I don’t get qua.
Perhaps I never will.
And it bugs me.
Worst of all: I continue to use it to avoid letting my little game blow up in my face. Honestly, I try to make queen or quiet or quote instead, but those are tough, and more often than not, I resort to qua. And for that, I am ashamed.
Such a tiny little word to cause such a large amount of stress in my life. Clearly, I have a problem. And that problem is words.
Words are also the solution though, and here I share qua with you. Now it’s your problem, too. Can you give me a better sentence? Something more useful? A better reason for this QUA?! I’d appreciate it very much.
Anyone else out there a Dean Koontz fan? Personally, I am OBSESSED!
I love almost everything he’s ever written (77 Shadow Street is the one and only exception to date), even his old pen name stuff. My favorite of all is his book Life Expectancy. I rarely read books more than once and that’s one of the rare exceptions (that and The Historian and Jemima J— so random, I know).
But besides Life Expectancy, I absolutely, completely, and totally dig the Odd Thomas series.
Until writing this post, I didn’t realize just how many Odd books there are… there’s a lot! And I’ve loved every one and it feels like such a long wait in between!
Odd Thomas is a young man who sees ghosts… mostly people, some dogs, some famous, some not. He defines himself as a fry cook, but we know he’s so much more. And I love him for that. He’s humble and loving; loving in a completely heartbreaking way (but no spoilers from me– and don’t read any of the Odd Thomas books before you read the first!! I did… and sobbed all the way through the first one…).
Like I said, Odd is a fry cook; a short order cook at a local, hometown diner. He’s famous for his fluffy pancakes and truly aspires to nothing more than cooking good food quickly. When I started reading Odd Thomas this was a pretty foreign notion to me– the idea that you could aspire to be happy doing something well without meeting the societal norms that define “success.” It was the first time that I really thought about the idea of being ok without always, always, always striving for more and more and more. Lots of Dean Koontz’s characters are like that… they don’t all have to be millionaires and billionaires and fancy, important people. They’re regular, but special, not because of what they do or where they live or how much money they have, but because of who they are on the inside. Just like Odd, loyal and loving, thoughtful and intelligent.
Odd also taught me about trusting your intuition. Granted, he has what he refers to as “psychic magnetism,” which is more than just intuition… when he lets go and really trusts his gut, it never leads him astray. But it’s a good reminder for me because I spend a lot of time mulling things over in my head and not following my gut-heart (because I think when people say follow your heart, they really mean gut). My gut knows what’s up though. When I follow my gut, I end up in the right place. So do all of Dean’s characters.
Finally, I love, love, love how Odd loves. He’s amazing in that respect. I really don’t want to give anything away, but this is a man who follows his gut in all matters, including love. Romantic love and otherwise– friends and family. (Also, I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m an absolute sucker for a love story, and Dean Koontz almost always adds a love story. He knows the recipe for absolute literary delight!)
Odd Thomas is awesome. To me, he’s the epitome of all that’s good about Dean Koontz’s characters. He tells us what’s important– loyalty, optimism, perseverance, hope, kindness, generosity… and dogs 🙂 He always adds a dog, ghost or otherwise, and I love that. I loved it even before I had my own. Now I super love it!
Dean Koontz has made me love the regular guy, to look for the extraordinary in the every day, to swoon over all that is California, and to recognize that no matter how bad things can seem, how bad things can be, there’s always, always, always an opportunity for good.
I recently downloaded the Audible app to my phone (there’s an app for that!) and I’ve been listening to audio books while I run, walk, mow the lawn, or drive the dog to the emergency vet… and only then. A chance to listen to a good book is ridiculously motivating in such instances, I love it! And to date, nothing has been more motivating than a good Dean Koontz book. Yes, I pepper in other things (Divergent by Veronica Roth, Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, for example), but I’m completely Koontz-ivated! At present, I’m listening to his newest– The City. It’s wonderful, and so different from the usual! For one thing, it takes place in New York City, not California (or New Orleans). Secondly, it’s centered around a child. Children play prominent roles in others of his books, but this is the first time a child is the main character. Fascinating! He’s branching out, after oh so many books, and still killing it!
Do you have an author like that? One who has found your formula for literary genius???
PS: Speaking of all things high brow and literary… My sister and I have been texting back and forth about The Bachelorette: Men Tell All… and she said to me, “By giving in to the greatness which is the Bachelor, you have helped us take our seester-hood to a new level!” She’s right, you know. This trashy, reality television series is where it’s at!! And books, too. Books. Yep.
Before I get on with the business of the day, I’d like to clarify what I said about academic condescension yesterday. Please be assured that it is 100% knowledge-based snobbery, not title-based. In fact, I have considerably less patience for those with lots of letters behind there name and very few thoughts between their ears and I very much admire those without the letters who have come by incredible and complex thoughts by way of experience (my dad, my friends Marie and Michele– really, really incredible thinkers, no need for letters). True, I have some letters behind my own name, but I am of the opinion that having a “terminal” degree doesn’t mean the end of learning, nor is it the only path to being learn-ed. <End Rant> Hash tag– yes, that’s personal.
I is an interesting letter in this little adventure you and I are on.
Originally I was going to wax poetic about icing. You see, frosting was the first binge food I ever got caught with. (Got caught with… not first binge. Big difference.) Kind of a big deal when it was discovered in my filing cabinet. (Because what second grader doesn’t ask for a file cabinet for Christmas??? And what third grader doesn’t keep a carton of chocolate frosting and a spoon inside?) Except, while working my way to the letter I, I was also reading two books– Innocence by Dean Koontz (to get technical about it, that was actual my Audible book that I listened to while running, walking, or mowing the lawn– talk about motivation! dang!) and My Own Country by Abraham Verghese (a gift from my dear friend Suma because she thought I’d like it… and did I ever!) and the parallels and really interesting points about innocence were too poignant to ignore.
Therefore, the letter I is for the idea of innocence. Super interesting– just hear me out!!!
The Dean Koontz book is kind of a given here. I’ve been a little bit disappointed with some of his most recent work (77 Shadow Street? It was the pits! Took me for-ev-er to slog through it and even at the end, I was unable to find any redeeming qualities), but this book captured me pretty much immediately. The basic premise is this: a guy who cannot be seen, a girl who cannot be touched, both social exiles, but things change when they find each other. There’s that supernatural Dean Koontz-y element that I love so much and the story was so so good. In the end (not really a spoiler, don’t worry) you find out that the reason for the main characters’ differences was literally their absolute and complete innocence– an innocence so magnificent that anyone who looked at them or touched them was doomed to instantaneous reflection on all the reason that they themselves were not innocent. And that’s not pretty for anyone.
The Abraham Verghese book? Totally different! Dr. Verghese is the MD who wrote Cutting for Stone, which is truly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Cutting for Stone is fictional, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing… read it! My Own Country is an autobiographical account of Dr. Verghese’s “coming of age” as an infectious disease specialist during the first years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.
Where’s the parallel, right?’
I’m getting there.
Verghese is an amazing writer because he is so beautifully honest, even when the things he’s being honest about aren’t so beautiful. He does not write himself as a hero, he writes himself as a man– warts and all. (He never actually mentions warts, just flaws. I say warts because I used to have SO many warts on my left knee, you guys. It was awful. I was in derm every other week because this was before the time of the canned freezy do-it-at-home spray stuff. It was an awful time! Now I wrote about my warts and you will think of me as a beautifully and genuinely honest author, right?)
Anyway, in My Own Country Verghese talks a lot about how his patients were contracting HIV in the small town of eastern Tennessee in which he lived and worked. As you are likely aware, the AIDS epidemic really came to light in the United States amongst gay men. Yes, there were also many cases that resulted from intravenous drug use, blood transfusions, and in hemophiliacs receiving clotting factor concentrates, but it was risky sexual behaviors that were the hot topic. Especially because, at the time, homosexuality was rarely talked about and certainly not well-accepted by any means. As such, Vergheese found himself immersed in a sub-culture that he was completely unfamiliar with and he had so many questions. Not necessarily about the lifestyle, the culture, or anything, although those things were certainly of interest– more so about himself, his prejudices, his biases, his thoughts on innocence and guilt and what having HIV and AIDS really meant.
At one point, Verghese describes meeting a heterosexual couple who were both HIV infected. The husband had undergone heart surgery, during which he had received several units of blood… HIV-infected blood. He then transmitted the virus to his wife. A very sad story, of course, and Vergheese found himself emotionally invested from the get go… this poor, innocent couple.
Until he questioned his notion of what it actually meant to be innocent. If this couple was “innocent,” did that imply that the gay men he routinely saw were somehow not innocent?
I love so much that he questioned himself, his own beliefs, his own prejudices. How many of us can say that we generally do? That we can examine our own thoughts about guilt and innocence and to admit that maybe we weren’t being completely objective… completely fair.
It was interesting to read these two books simultaneously… the first describing how much we can despise the innocent for emphasizing our own shortcomings, the second pointing out our quick leap to a judgement and dislike of those we consider “guilty.” Such an interesting dichotomy.
Innocent, guilty… ultimately– “who am I to judge?” I think Pope Francis got it right. Who are any of us to judge?
I know that I am not innocent– far from it (remember the chocolate frosting??? also, I’ve been a big fat liar since day one, etc, etc, etc). As such, you shouldn’t find me casting any stones.
Shouldn’t being the operative word.
Because sometimes, I think I do. Ok, I know I do.
I appreciate Abraham Verghese bringing this to my attention, for making me really think about innocence and what my own prejudices might be. And Dean Koontz for underscoring the point when it was brought to mind.
Reading and thinking… do it! Even fiction can make a difference!
H was almost for Harry Potter. Almost. I mean, I love Harry Potter. LOVE IT.
But my favorite part of Harry Potter:
The hair! The brain! The condescension!
She’s perfection 🙂
I knew it from the moment she introduced herself and one-upped the boys with her oculus repairo spell.
Also, I love that my brother called her HER-ME-OH-KNEE until we saw the movie. It makes me smile so big. Until I remember that he got pissed off about something after like the fifth book and never finished them. Can you even imagine the insane level of dissatisfaction? Maybe someday he’ll finish the series up. (Please, Stubby?)
I’m sure it’s pretty obvious to you why I like Hermione so much– I totally relate to her. On so many levels.
First: the hair. We’ve talked about that before, mine gets pretty insane. Once, my friend Aimie‘s kids were in my office and we were talking about Harry Potter and I told them my hair was just like Hermione’s. Noah didn’t believe me, so I pulled it out of the ponytail it was in to demonstrate. Both of their jaws dropped– it was too cute! Yep, my hair is a big, frizzy mess. But if it’s good enough for Hermione, it’s good enough for me! (And it’s also why I do better in the north!)
Second: the brain! My brain is definitely my biggest, and strongest, asset. (But seriously, I have a very big head, I imagine that I must have quite a bit of brains in there to fill all the space.) I thrive on knowledge, on learning. I looooove to read. Anything and everything. In fact, I used to take the dictionary into the bathroom with me as a little kid (ask my parents, it’s 100% true) and I’d sit on the toilet and soak in all the new words. I also read my encyclopedia set from cover to cover and bookmarked all of the interesting pages (i.e. I bookmarked pretty much all of the pages). If only I weren’t a muggle… think of all the magic there would be to learn.* (I’m not kidding, you guys, my head is literally real big.)
And third: let’s be honest, it’s totally the academic condescension. I’m the worst. I try really hard to be cool about people not knowing things, and yet… I’m kind of not. I’m a snob. Sue me.
That whole “it’s not wingardium leviOsa it’s wingardium leviosA” thing is totally me. To a T. Or an H, even 🙂
And I know other people have noticed. As recently as grad school, my advisor said to me that she thought I might have a hard time teaching because I’d have to be patient with people who weren’t as smart as me.
Oooo. Burn on me!
But I can recognize that truth about myself. We all have our flaws… even me and Hermione.
*Seriously, though. I am half magical, on my mom’s side. Not 100% muggle. I’m not even kidding. My Grandma Rita’s parents, Alex and Rachel (my namesake) Liberacki were professional magicians.
No, I do not know how they do that. Little bit of whiffle dust, I suppose. I did learn lots of tricks though when I was younger– magic in the talent show was totally my thing. Except for the year when I sang Matchmaker, Matchmaker with two other girls and three mops. Or the year I read Shel Silverstein poems…
Oh man, I am such a Hermione!
… Read on if you’re a die hard HP fan like me …
I wore this sweet necklace to work today and I was suddenly aware of it’s heaviness against my chest in the middle of the day, which is when I realized:
This Petoskey stone is the horcrux in which I keep the Michigan girl part of my soul.
That way, even if I die, that bit of me never will.
Voldermort may have been on to something.
Congress, take note– that is how you act bipartisan!
One of the items that’s been on my to do list for quite a while now is a quarterly book club review. This is a review of the books we’ve read for my actual in person, physical book club in the last three months… I thought you might want to know about them! Especially because all three were G-O-O-D good! And, for some reason, people often ask me to recommend books. It’s like they know I (really) like reading or something 😉
(Also, I just finished The Master of Ballantrae last night for our Under the Covers virtual book club, but I’ll tell you all about that one another time.)
I think I’ve mentioned all three of the books we’ve read so far at some point, simply because when I read I get very wrapped up in the fictional world I’m enjoying and it’s hard (really, really hard) for me not to let it creep out into my real life. (Take, for example, my new Hermione-style time turner to keep me from sitting in front of the computer for big, long, extended periods of time.) But here are my real, true, comprehensive reviews of the first three books we read… all in one place.
So, without further ado, let me tell you about Murderers and Nerdy Girls Work Late by Lisa Boero, Deadly Contact by Lara Lacombe, and Mary: Mrs. A Lincoln by Janice Cooke Newman.
Murderers and Nerdy Girls Work Late by Lisa Boero
(Dang… that picture is big. I just noticed the goosebumps on the legs– that’s hilarious to me!)
I told you quite a bit about this book before here, so I’ll spare you the big spiel about prosopagnosia. Instead, let me tell you about why this book was such a good read!
Honestly, the thing that struck me first was the title. I mean, nerdy girls. That’s my love language. Nerdy is a word that truly describes me to a T and I try pretty hard to embrace it, as opposed to shying away and trying to insist that I’m cool (I swear!) because I’m not. I’m a nerd. And that’s ok. (You had me at nerdy, Lisa. You had me at nerdy.)
Nerdy Girls is a totally self-written, self-published, and self-promoted masterpiece. I’m so impressed by the circumstances in which Lisa wrote the book. And besides all that, it’s GOOD! Really good! I think everyone in our book club agreed that the ending was a little too brief… like all of the sudden everything was clear, the murderer was captured, the hero and heroine were in love, and it was the end. But besides that, truly a good read. Especially because of the prosopagnosia piece. (Clearly, I lied when I told you I’d spare you that spiel because here it comes).
Like women in real life, women in books are insecure for all sorts of different reasons, but it seems most often to be related to physical (I’m not thin enough!) or emotional (you don’t think I’m thin enough!) insecurities… this was the first time I considered the notion of a neurological insecurity, and I thought that was really interesting. To be honest, the way that the main character Liz copes with her neurological condition is actually very similar to the way I’d say I cope with depression in public. You know the motions, you know the drill, so even if you don’t really feel it, you can smile when you need to, chuckle when you ought, and make it through day after day after day out in the world without anyone ever being the wiser. It was a fascinating thing for me to think about!
When I went and heard Lisa Boero speak at the Marshfield Public Library, she mentioned that she had five more books in the nerdy girl series on the way. (Exciting!) Apparently though, all of the books feature Liz’s prosopagnosia-based story. That’s super cool, I really liked Liz, but how fascinating would it be to have all sorts of different “nerdy” girls with different neurological and/or psychiatric issues as the heroines?! I thought it would be really cool! (Note that I’m using the word cool here in a way you may be unaccustomed to it being used… you know what I mean.) I said so to Lisa during the Q&A (I got so brave for a minute) and she seemed intrigued by the idea… although I’m sure she’d have to quit her day job to research other disorders since prosopagnosia is the only one she’s got! Regardless, if you see that series come out sometime in the future, you can totally credit me!!
Deadly Contact by Lara Lacombe
OMG! I loved this book. I absolutely devoured it.
I remember the day I read it very distinctly because my in-laws were over and my sister-in-law came over with her copy, thinking she might read a bit. I had just finished something else and can’t stand when my SIL thinks she reads faster than me (because she doesn’t) so I picked up my copy too, thinking I’d get a little ways in once everyone left. Except I couldn’t… stop…
I have no idea how late I was up reading, but it was seriously late. I woke up the next morning and started reading again in bed (good thing it was Saturday– that may have been difficult to explain to the boss), eventually moved my behind out to the couch, and didn’t stop until mid-afternoon when I was completely done and left quite satisfied with the ending.
It was just that good! Not only that, but I actually know know the author… like she’s a personal friend of mine. She’s an absolutely brilliant and meticulous scientist, she mentored me in my first ever grad school rotation, and the last thing I would have ever guessed would be that she happened to dabble in romantic suspense on the side. And that she’s really, really good at it! How the? What?
So not only is it brilliantly written, truly romantic, and exceptionally suspenseful, but all the freaking SCIENCE is correct, too! For instance, near the end of the book, she was describing the vial of yellow-ish opaque liquid that Kelly was going to have to deliver to the bad guy and I thought to myself, “Lara, you know better– if it were liquid and not on ice, all the bacteria would be dead, and the bad guy would be tipped off immediately.” And then that’s what Kelly said to the guys in the FBI… because she’s like Lara, and she knows her science.
Now, how Lara knows her romance… that leaves much up to the imagination, but clearly she’s expert. Definitely an awesome read and another in the works for later this year, I believe– I will be anxiously awaiting it!
Mary: Mrs. A Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman
Another book I absolutely loved. Although, with some caveats.
First, the book is really, really long. At 620 pages, it takes you through Mary Todd Lincoln’s life from beginning to end and spares little detail, I’m sure. I loved the completeness of it, but there are really only so many times you need to hear about how Lincoln’s great oration made Mary’s “bosom heave” before it becomes a bit much. I get it. He talks, she’s hot and bothered. It was the 1800s… what are you gonna do?
The other kind of crappy part is how confused I feel about Mary Todd Lincoln now. I thought I knew some things about her, but now I am plain confused. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to read an actual biography now because I’m so disturbed by some of the things about Mary’s life that may or may not have been fictionalized. You see, the book is based on the historical facts of Mary’s and her family’s life, but it’s also historical fiction, which means it is, in fact, fiction. So… did Mary Lincoln really have an affair during Lincoln’s presidency? Were her tendency for hoarding and her attachment to things really as horrifying as they sound? Was Robert really that unloving toward his parents, his brothers, and his wife? Clearly, I’ve got some researching to do! It’s difficult sometimes for me to appreciate the good and bad about a historical subject. I get that people are complicated, and always have been, but it can be hard not to idolize people who did so much good in their lives and are now long gone… to remember that they weren’t perfect.
But besides all that… a truly awesome read. I’m completely fascinated by the Civil War era and this book really highlights some of the most important injustices suffered, especially by women, at the time. Not only that, but it really highlights how far psychology has come over the last nearly 200 year. We’re much better at not poisoning crazy people, or even accusing them and labeling them of being crazy, as we were back then. The “remedies” Mary took, and Lincoln too, were just disturbing!
Probably the most interesting thing to me in the whole book was that the worst offense ever uttered to Mary during her life was related to the notion that she, a woman, might have had some sense of ambition. Can you even imagine?!
This was definitely the most mixed of our books so far, in terms of reception. I really liked it and so did one other member of the book club… the other two struggled to finish and probably wouldn’t readily recommend it. So I’d say it’s a taste thing for this one. The nerdier you are, the more likely it is to be your cup of tea (sorry, Emily, but like I said above– I really don’t think of nerdiness as a bad thing and you are legitimately cool and pretty, even though you liked Mary like I did).
Next up we’re reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Spoiler Alert: It’s really freaking good. Like so good I force people to read it by telling them they have to pick it as their next book club book. Abraham Verghese is an MD who wrote a beautiful, beautiful work of fiction and I’m super excited to read it again. I read it crazy fast the first time, wanting to know more, more, more… this time I can slow down a bit and really think about some of the things I might have thought of only briefly the first time around. I’m already really enjoying it. But more on that next quarter, yes?
Have you read anything good lately? Are we friends on GoodReads? We should be!