The World Is Burning Down. If You Need Me I’ll Be Here Reading

It feels like the world is on fire, again. In many ways, including literally (global warming), immigration, international politics, but in this instance I’m talking specifically about women’s reproductive rights.

Alabama I’m looking at YOU. Also, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio who’ve passed ‘fetal heartbeat bills’ outlawing abortion beyond 6 weeks of pregnancy, and every other state chipping away at laws that protect woman’s right to autonomy over our bodies. Here’s what I think of all you POS, MF’s, etc.

So besides venting my outrage to friends, sharing feminist articles on social media, canvassing for political candidates who don’t actively hate me or want to control my or my daughter’s bodies, I’ve been hiding in my bedroom.

Kidding. Sort of.

Want to know what has been possibly saving me from utter madness?

BOOKS. Lots and lots of books.

In my last post way back in (gasp) December, I discussed upping my book consumption and asked for any app recs in order to keep track of my reading. Well, I found one easily enough on iTunes, and I can’t explain how much I love it. Or maybe I can.

It’s called – get ready for your mind to be blown – Reading List.

Genius in its simplicity, there are no bells or whistles, it’s just an easy way to keep track of books you’ve read and want to read. You can create lists if you so desire, which I do, and for me those are Fiction and Memoir, but you can create lists for any genre, category, or even for other family members.

All you do is type in the book’s title or author, or, better yet, SCAN the bar code (SWOON!) and an image of the book cover (along with pub info and description) magically appears. Add it to your list and BOOM. You’re done. Except for the actual reading part.

Since January, I’ve read 25 (!) books and my to-read list is about 45 and counting. The only thing you can’t easily do is juggle the books around in a different order, as they’re arranged chronologically, but that is a first world problem so get over it.

As an act of public service, I’m going to share some of my recently read favorites, which you may or may not enjoy since book loving is completely subjective. I’ve split them into categories for fun, and they are listed in order in which they were consumed (please know there are many, MANY more which I’m happy to share with you, just ask).

5 TOP NOVELS

Milkman by Anna Burns
I fell into a hypnotic trance reading this book about the Irish troubles, get it NOW

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
If I can read a book with a dog as a main character and love it, well, that’s all I need to say

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
YA fantasy that sucked me in and spit me out and it’s the 1st in a trilogy YAY

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Chilling, lyrical, brilliant, you will not be able to stop reading or thinking about it once done

Yellow Star by Jennifer Rozines Roy
One of the most wrenching and beautiful Middle Grade Holocaust books I’ve ever read

 

5 TOP MEMOIRS

Deep Creek: Finding Hope in High Country by Pam Houston
Beautiful and painful and earnest, thank you for being a human being in this world, Pam

Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso
Vignette master + word sculptor, also for anyone suffering from chronic illness

Joy Enough: A Memoir by Sarah McColl
Dead mother club members sign up here, lyrical masterpiece

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
Innovative shit happening in this book of essays that reads like a memoir

Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
Please just read everything she has ever written, starting with Safekeeping

 

5 MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS-TO-READ

Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Run-do-not-walk to get this book about a real life horror story retold by a master

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
A renown reporter digs deep into the Irish Troubles (see Milkman in Fiction)

Black Is the Body by Emily Bernard
Memoir via connected essays about race, family, and the body

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange
Middle grade book my daughter is reading bc we LOVED her debut so so much

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault by Cathy Guisewite
Mostly because my mom loved her Cathy comic strip but also because she’s hilarious

 

READING NOW AND LOVING THE CRAP OUT OF

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Unsung hero of the short story genre who died before being fully recognized

Rag by Maryse Meijer
Short stories by a woman who is not afraid to get deep in the muck, FYI men do not fare well here


Whew.

Now it’s your turn. How are you making your way through the muck of life, and more importantly, what are you reading?

Next month I will delve into HOW I find my next books…

Book Goals!

It’s that time again. Resolutions, or for the more succinct, word of the year. For a while, I tried this One Word business, but like resolutions, they rarely stuck.

This year, I figured out something better. Something more attainable and infinitely more fun.

BOOK GOALS!

readingmeme

Let’s backtrack here for a moment to a dark and terribly grim time in my life:

The time when I didn’t read. 

It’s hard to even imagine, I know. The concept of not-reading goes against every grain of book loving fiber in my body, and yet, it happened. You may guess what inspired this temporary hiatus. Babies.

Of course. Those sweet little life sucking cherubs!

But it didn’t happen all at once. My reading slowed, as one might expect, but I soon discovered reading-while-nursing. And this was before iPhones, or at least, before I had an iPhone.

Imagine the scenario: You’re stuck on a couch or a bed or a chair nursing a baby. A dull glaze quickly settles over you, often accompanied by a rabid restlessness. Without social media as a crutch, I relied on books. I’m talking about actual bound books, printed with ink, and on paper! No digital readers for me, not then or now.

But once my youngest was up and mobile, my reading time collapsed. With two young kids to wrangle, feed, entertain, and nap, I had little time or energy for much else. Like any drug, the withdrawal hurt the most in the beginning, and the longer I went without, the less I craved it. Or at least, that’s the lie I told myself.

If you ask me how long this hiatus lasted for, I couldn’t give you a precise timeline. It was over a year, perhaps a little more than two. I remember scanning the shelves of our local library in Brooklyn (circa 2013) for my own stash after toddler story time.

It was a loss, though. Truly. Not having my most trusted and loyal companions, especially during such lonely time as new motherhood, was rough.

My appetite for books has only increased since then, perhaps making up for those lost years. For example, in 2016, when I decided to write a memoir, I spent an entire year reading memoir and craft books almost exclusively. Emerging from that haze, I returned ravenous for fiction, and now I read both, often at the same time.

Some recent sample pairings:

One of my favorite, and embarrassingly recent, discoveries is the library. Curiously enough, I didn’t grow up with a library habit. My mother took me to bookstores, and while I appreciate her desire to support local businesses, I sometimes wonder why we didn’t take advantage of free (free!) libraries. Maybe it was because she couldn’t afford books as a child, and this was her way of splurging, but regardless, it took many years for me to fall in love with libraries.

But once I fell, I fell hard.

librarymeme2

It can be a bit of a problem. Over checking out. Over requesting. But it’s a problem I’m grateful to have.

librarymeme

So, after that rather long preamble, what are my book goals for 2019?

Actually, it’s pretty simple. Keep reading.

IMG_5094

But I would like to keep better track of what I read. If anyone has an app they love, please let me know! I’m not interested in anything fancy or complicated, just a simple way to look back and easily recall, since my brain no longer allows such luxuries.

Happy New Year my fellow readers, and of course, happy reading!

 

 

 

 

 

This Life

I haven’t written much here, in this space, for quite a while.

My problem on the page, one I don’t share conversationally, is I don’t like to write if I have nothing to say. Don’t be fooled into thinking nothing has been happening. So much has been happening, in the world outside of myself, and within.

But every time I feel the prickling of interest, something I want to share about a feeling, a phrase, a book, a moment, before I can get it down in words, it takes flight, like a flock of birds when a wave approaches, and I’m left with nothing but a glimmer, a smoothed out stretch of gleaming sand. I can’t write about such flatness, I can’t capture something without edges, and so I take note, for myself, and walk away.

beach at dusk

Today is Thanksgiving, but I woke up, for the second morning in a row, feeling irritable. I don’t want to be woken up the way I am nearly every day, by my daughter’s thumping gait as she drags herself and her broken foot to the bathroom and back, and then the inevitable creak of my door as she opens it to ask me to help her get dressed, to find her a pair of socks, her iPod, a book.

And yet, of course this is exactly how I want to wake up, if the alternative is not waking up, or not having her in a room adjacent to mine. If something terrible or tragic were to happen to one of us, to her, I would fall apart, disintegrate.

This reasoning should invoke some gratitude, grudgingly, or otherwise, and usually it does. Today I stumbled into her room, bleary eyed and annoyed, and tossed her a pair of socks, which she rejected for dirty ones pulled from the pile next to her bed. I am needed and not needed. She is more than halfway to eleven years old. I try to remind myself that soon I will be needed less, or needed differently, and these thoughts fill me with despair.

Despair! Even though so much of what runs through my mind on a given day is LEAVE ME ALONE, like the title of one of my son’s favorite picture books. Every time I open it up, I laugh in recognition. A frowning grandmother in an old fashioned dress with a babushka on her head surrounded by dozens of grandchildren. Most days I feel like that grandma, frowning in my pajama pants and tank top, trudging up and down the stairs, to and from the kitchen, feeling bombarded by the never ending litany of requests.

But it only takes a moment, a flash of understanding about the fleetingness of time, for the ground to disappear beneath my feet, for longing and regret and sadness to compete with my need for solitude.

I just finished reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life on recommendation from a writer I admire and like very much, Beth Kephart. She wrote an article about her in The Millions and shared it on Facebook, a medium that offers me so much solace, and also wastes so much of my time. In this case, it was precisely the life preserver I needed.

safekeeping

The book didn’t come from my local library because for some reason they don’t own it. They couldn’t even request it via inter-library loan, because not one copy exists in the entire county, which now I realize is an absolute crime. But the librarian told me he would request it elsewhere, and when the book arrived just a couple weeks later, I was pleased to discover it came from Pittsburgh, my mother’s hometown. I love the idea that this book traveled all the way across the state to find me on the other side.

I didn’t intend to read it so quickly. It’s an ideal sipping book, each chapter is perfectly named and comprised anywhere from a single paragraph upward to several pages. There are no cliffhangers, per say, since the book is not linear, and each chapter feels utterly self-contained, and yet, I couldn’t stop. It was one of those wonderful inhalations where the insights and language feel as nourishing as food. I just wanted to eat and eat and eat.

In the morning after a particularly late night, I read several passages aloud to my daughter over breakfast, interrupting her own reading. She finished her paragraph in Harry Potter and looked up, waiting. I read quickly, not wanting to lose her attention.

“They had a big window installed in the kitchen that looked into the woods. In the fall afternoons she used to watch them empty of their light like a glass of bourbon slowly being filled to the brim.”

I wondered if she understood the word bourbon meant amber liquid, but even before I started to explain, her eyes lit up, a mirror of my own. Oh mom, that is so good, too good, and I nodded, grinning, delighted to have captured her interest and understanding. Without a prompt, I read her another brief passage:

“Some things are so sad you think they can’t get better, and nothing will be okay. She didn’t make it better, although she tried, later. It got better by itself. He has a wife and a baby girl now. They sleep in the same bed. He lives on an island.”

Stop, she said, it’s too good, I’m jealous. 

I knew exactly what she meant, but I shook my head, no no, don’t be jealous, just drink it up, soak it in, writing like this can teach you so much. 

I let her return to her own book then, and I returned to mine, both of us satisfied.

Days later, here I am, alone in my office, shut up after my irritable morning, finishing a cup of coffee and this precious book. In the span of an hour, the foggy dawn has transformed into a bright and crystalline morning. The birds have come and gone from the feeder outside my window. I now feel sated and calm, having shucked off my anger with solitude and words.

I’ll leave you with this passage toward the end of the book, and maybe one day, I’ll read it to my daughter, when she’s old enough to understand, when and if she has a child of her own, and a need to be alone, to shut a door, with herself and a book.

“What is this longing, she will want to ask. This troubling feeling of more to come. You can make something out of it, I want to tell her. But that’s what her life is for.”

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with ebbs and flows of sensation and memory, of good food and laughter, and maybe a special book you can share with someone you love.

 

 

 

Summering Like a Mother

I’ve let a lot of things go this summer.

This blog, for example, which has fallen by the wayside these past two years while I poured all my focus into writing and revising my memoir.

Neglect by necessity, you might say.

Not unlike summer parenting. Right now my kids are playing Minecraft for the umpteenth hour despite all my efforts to curb screen time this summer.

It’s midway through a summer with minimal camp and minimal childcare, which means maximum MOTHERING.

river summer 2018

So grateful for this river. 

Despite this, I managed to accomplish a surprising amount. I’ve read a TON of books, including EVERY single Deborah Levy, my new summertime writing crush. I can’t recommend her latest memoir, The Cost of Living, enough. Also, her previous memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know. (Check out the linked reviews from The Guardian if you’re curious to know more.)

levy memoir

This is what I call, reading while mothering.

I just discovered that these are the first two installments of a memoir trilogy, which follow her life as a woman in her 40s, 50s, and the forthcoming 60s. This reminds me of another trilogy I finished this summer, Rachel Cusk’s incredibly unique and powerful, Kudos.

Other books devoured:

Educated by Tara Westover – I loved this memoir, but it also made me anxious because of her dramatic, and at times violent, childhood.  It’s not the quiet kind of memoir that I usually gravitate towards, but I’m so glad I read it.

Podcast accompaniment: the NPR interview that first piqued my interest.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – a riveting novel about women’s prisons in California told (mostly) from the perspective of Romy Hall, a young woman serving two consecutive life sentences (this is not a spoiler).

Podcast accompaniment: Kushner at the Los Angeles Public Library.

summer reading

I adore my public library. 

Also, somehow, despite the nonstop pace of summer at home with two kids, I managed to finish another draft of my memoir.

draft 2

I didn’t expect to have any time to work, but it makes sense that I made the time. Writing keeps me sane by reminding me who I am – in addition to being a mother. Recently, The Sunlight Press published an essay I wrote several months ago about this exact theme: Saying Yes.

A little while ago I walked outside while the kids buried their faces behind their screens. Freshly cut grass stuck to my sandals as I shuffled across the damp lawn, gazing at the overgrown landscaping. The weeds have won, I decided, with ambivalence.

I had attempted to tackle them in late spring, digging the innocent looking green sprouts out by the roots, but it’s the kind of task that has to be done repeatedly, religiously, compulsively, and well, I just don’t have time for that kind of nonsense.

The weeds are officially bigger than the “legit” flowers, and yet, they have flowers of their own.

weeds

Who is to say, really, what is a weed and what is a flower? A convenient argument, perhaps, seeing as we’re living behind a forest of weeds, but still, I wonder. My son has always loved dandelions, one of the most persistent of weeds, and even names it as his favorite “flower.” Who am I to tell him he’s wrong?

A few weeks ago, I tried using kitchen shears to cut a six-foot long stem that had crept across the driveway, but it was so thick – with a circumference of at least one inch – I almost broke the shears. After abandoning them, I used my hands to twist the thick stem back and forth, finally cracking it in half with a satisfying crunch. I dragged it into the woods and flung it a few feet away where I’m sure it will root down and begin again. But that’s another day’s problem.

Sometimes we have to let things go, so other things can grow.

A Return to Light

Today is winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year, but it’s also a celebration. A return to light. Every day, from now until summer solstice, the sun will linger longer in the evening sky.

This reminds me of the mantra I was repeating last night, when my mind crackled with fear and worry about my family: Everything changes. Nothing stays the same.

Sometimes it’s comforting to remember that nothing is permanent. Not the darkness, not a season. It might be the darkest day of the year, but tomorrow will be a little brighter.

mug in window

I’m holding onto this knowledge tightly right now, in regards to my own life, but also what’s going on in the world. I can barely look at the news. I can’t listen to my usual podcasts. I feel sickened by the passage of the tax bill, and all the fearsome chatter in the stream of political emails I receive.

I’m overwhelmed, and with that comes despair and inertia. Fortunately, I know it’s temporary. The fog will lift, things will change. It may go backwards before it goes forwards, but it won’t, can’t, stay still.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember this in times of crisis. My go-to place is usually straight to Doomsday. Def-con 5. When my son has a terrible tantrum, I weep for his future. Every fight with my husband feels like a harbinger of divorce. Another victory for the GOP signals armageddon. Basically, when anything goes off the rails, I panic.

It’s taken me years to learn the basics of emergency management:

stop, breathe, wait

The last part is what trips me up the most, especially when there is no immediate action to take, no quick fix or repair. Just faith, and memory.

There was a time when I wanted nothing to change, when that very mantra set my teeth on edge. It may sound strange, but after my mother died, I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want my grief to lessen. I didn’t want anything to change (well, except for her to still be alive, but that was impossible). When well meaning friends and family tried to console me with the platitude, “you’ll feel better in time,” I wanted to shake their shoulders and scream, “I don’t want to feel better!”

grief covered face

They were right, of course. Nothing stays the same, not even grief. But that’s the kind of lesson we must learn for ourselves. It can’t be instructed or taught. It has to be lived.

Discomfort is uncomfortable. We can’t outrun or hide from it. We have to live through it. Sometimes we understand this instinctively. We choose pain over numbness. We greet each rising wave head on and let it knock us over. We trust that the water will recede, and that eventually, we’ll be able to breath again.

sea-ocean-rocks-waves

No matter what you are grieving or struggling with right now, no matter how big or small, how old or new, I wish you some moments of peace this holiday season.

See you in 2018. xo

Making Sense of the Mess

As some of you know, I’ve been writing a memoir for a little over a year about motherhood, illness, and grief. After reaching my (arbitrary) word count of 70k this past June, I soared to a whopping 90k by September.

draft

While I was thrilled to have amassed so much raw material, a part of me was also terrified. What am I going to do with this mess?

Because that’s what it felt like – a giant hot mess. Memories of my life from childhood to present day all poured into a Scrivener file so big it took over my computer.

I know some writers enjoy the revision process, but I’m not that writer. Or at least, I wasn’t.

But recently I realized something. The reason revision scares me is because it requires a transition. A switching of gears.

Writing for me is an intuitive process. Often I don’t know where I’m going until I arrive. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always loved the E.L. Doctorow quote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

foggy road

Of course some writers outline and map out at the onset of a project, but I prefer walking around in the dark.

This requires faith. You have to trust that where you end up, is where you need to be. You have to trust that nothing is a waste, even if it ends up in the trash.

You have to recognize the voice of Fear, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book on creativity, Big Magic, and steer it gently but firmly to the backseat of your mind.

You have to ignore the voices in your head – and outside of it – that say your story doesn’t matter, that no one cares. (Thank you Cheryl Strayed for your fantastic rebuttal of the stale argument that all memoir is narcissistic.)

You have to be willing to turn on the lights. You can’t revise in the dark. The fog must lift.

Recently, I listened to several interviews with Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. During a Writers on Writing podcast, she spoke of her process, detailing exactly how she goes from a literally messy handwritten draft – which was 1400 pages for her latest novel, Manhattan Beach – to a published book.

While her first draft is deeply intuitive, she switches to her analytical brain during revision. She is also unapologetic about the quality of those initial pages.

“The book was bad,” she stated in a recent New Yorker profile.

This isn’t a humble brag or false humility; it’s the truth. The point of a first draft is not perfection. The point is to make a mess, but the trick is not to be afraid of it.

A few days later I stumbled upon a quote from Alice Mattison’s craft book, The Kite and the String, that has quite literally changed the way I’m looking at my current messy manuscript.

“When a draft looks terrible, I don’t try to convince myself that it’s actually good or even that someday it will be, only that it’s my job to work on it whether it’s good or not.”

YES. That’s it, that’s what Jennifer Egan was talking about when she discussed her process of writing and revision.

“It’s pretty unpleasant,” she said about the first read-through, but after taking copious notes, she creates a detailed outline of revision. Then she begins the painstaking but focused process of analyzing the material.

The goal for each revision, which she does chapter by chapter, is to “bring it up a clear notch.” She does this repeatedly, over years. Each time the revision outline gets shorter, and each time the book gets closer to the final product.

It made me think about a rock tumbler, how over time, and after a series of lengthy steps, you can transform dull rocks into gleaming stones.

shiny stones

So that’s what I’m working on now. Raising each chapter up a level, again and again, until the work is done.

keep swimming

Dory was onto something.

I’d love to know what projects you are working on, and if you think any of this advice may help or inspire you. 

Off They Go

If I wrote this post yesterday, it would be unrecognizable.

Yesterday, on the eve of my youngest child’s first day of kindergarten, I was a teary anxious mess. Internally. Outwardly, I was holding it together. By a thread.

I kept having these dual and seemingly contradictory thoughts:

I am absolutely ready for him to go to kindergarten.
I am absolutely NOT ready.

Both felt entirely true.

We spent our last official “Mommy Day” at one of his favorite places, the Crayola Experience, playing with model magic and posing for silly pictures beneath a cascade of melted crayons.

Off they go 1

I tried my best to remain present. Not checking my phone or thinking about the udon soup I planned on having for lunch. Instead I inhaled his sweet smelling head and tried to snuggle him as we rolled out clay and cut them into shapes.

“Stop it, mom,” he said with a smile, pushing me away. I went in for more and he put up his hands.

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop.”

I watched two moms enter the room with their matching set of children, a toddler and a baby each. They held their infants while attempting to reign in their antsy three year olds. One toddled off toward us, pausing to stare at Leo, who was too busy cutting out gingerbread men to notice. I thought about how not so long ago I’d been one of those moms, but now I felt the distance expand as I drifted out of that frame and into another.

After finishing up at Crayola, we left for our respective treats: for Leo, a frozen yogurt topped with M+M’s, and for me, a bowl of steaming hot udon and veggies. A couple bites in, I felt my throat tighten up. After a few more, I could barely swallow. Here I was, getting what I wanted, and yet, I felt no pleasure.

I wondered if tomorrow’s milestone would feel similar. After years of aching for a quiet house and time to myself, I was about to get exactly that, but I had no idea if it would leave me feeling hollow or filled.

Turns out, both. It’s always both.

This morning I woke early, making lunches, filling backpacks, with enough time left over to make a batch of pancakes. Leo had a hard time getting out of bed, my bed, where he had appeared sometime in the night.

“I’m scared, Mommy,” he said, burrowing beneath the sheet. “I don’t want to go to school.”

“I know, honey,” I said, giving him a snuggle before luring him downstairs with the promise of Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes.

And then it was time. Sneakers on, backpacks slung onto shoulders, and out the door.

My husband said, “how about a first day of school picture?” and I froze, thinking Leo might refuse, or suddenly realize the thing he had feared all summer long was actually happening. Maybe he’d cling to my leg like so many preschool mornings, or run back into the house. But to my surprise he smiled and posed with his sister.

off they go 2

Then the bus slid into view. I put my phone away, too nervous for photos, afraid that trying to capture this pivotal moment would somehow jinx it. I had led myself to believe it might not actually happen. Maybe he wouldn’t get on the bus. But it was. Happening. We crossed the street, his sister leading the way.

He hesitated for a second. “Go on,” I said, and he did.

My baby got on that bus and sat down, disappearing from view. My husband and I stood at the end of our driveway, watching the bus begin to pull away.

We waved, and to my surprise, my son’s face appeared. His sweet smile framed by the window, and his hand mimicking ours, and then he was gone.

I felt a swell of emotion begin to rise, but when my husband asked, “Are you okay?” it subsided. Tears reversed. All the worry and anxiety had melted away, leaving me feeling empty, but not in a bad way.

“I think so,” I said.

My world is changing along with my children’s. I don’t have babies anymore and this is both a relief and a grief. We graduated that stage, albeit a little reluctantly on my part, and my son’s.

We’d been clinging to each other rather tightly these past few years. Perhaps because I suspected he was my last, I’d been holding on a bit too hard, or maybe it was just the right amount.

But this morning I let him go, and then, hours later, he returned. My little guy bounded off the bus and into my arms, giving me the tightest, sweetest hug.

I don’t know what tomorrow will be like, or next week, or next year. I don’t know how or if my heart will break or swell when I drop him and his sister off at college.

Probably both.

off they go 4