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!

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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.

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

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

Actually, it’s pretty simple. Keep reading.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

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Mining the Wounds

Last week was a slow one for writing. I’d like to believe this has more to do with the snowy weather than my brain, but probably both were responsible.

Life gets in the way. I don’t know why I seem to forget this.

My life. Love these guys.

My life. Love these guys.

There was a two-hour school delay Wednesday, and then no school for the rest of the week, but somehow I managed to scratch out a few pages of my novel despite hitting another wall (made of brick, rather high) and almost letting it get the best of me.

I’m two-thirds of the way through this draft, and while I have a general sense where I need to end up, how I get there is blurry.

I’m trying to take it one step/scene at a time and not hyperventilate, but there is this nudging voice that says I ought to have a better plan.

That voice says LOTS of jerky stuff and I know I’m supposed to ignore it, and most days I do, but sometimes it gets a little bit loud and makes me cranky. Thank goodness for the bird feeder outside my office window and the gorgeous cardinal that makes frequent appearances. I am so grateful to my husband for what I think is the best Valentine’s present ever.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal's red tail feathers.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal’s red tail feathers.

Another thing that helps get me through winter and novel writing blahs is reading an AWESOME book. The nudgy voice tried to interrupt, of course, insinuating that my book can’t possibly compare, but I squashed it with my boot and kept on reading.

all my puny sorrows

The author writes in an almost manic style, winding these gorgeous and wrenching sentences around and around like an endless skein of yarn, which makes me a bit anxious, but that is, partly, the point.

The book is about sisters, one sane, one less so, and the lengths we go to keep someone we love alive, even when that person would much rather be dead.

But there’s humor in the pathos, which makes it bearable. Which makes life bearable.

In between bouts of novel angst and laugh-crying my way through “All My Puny Sorrows,” I somehow managed to write a draft of a new essay about reading, and writing, my mother’s eulogy.

It started out as a blog post, but as I gained momentum I could feel the roots shooting down, expanding. This was going to be bigger.

It makes sense that my mom’s eulogy was on my mind, because I was also practicing my audition essay for the Lehigh Valley Listen to Your Mother show (a live performance in 39 cities across the US) which happens to be about her death.

As I was getting “all nerved up,” to use one of my mom’s expressions, I realized with a jolt that the hardest performance of my life had already occurred. Reading my audition essay, as vulnerable as I might feel, could not compare to reading my mom’s eulogy.

The dress I wore to my mom's funeral, and to my audition.

The dress I wore to my mom’s funeral, and to my Listen to Your Mother audition.

This June will be eight years since her death. Despite the passage of time, scars remain. Misshapen ridges mark my heart, a topography of grief. Sometimes they break open and bleed.

But that’s what writing is for, to honor our wounds, to face the joy and pain of life, both real and imagined. To not look away. To scratch at the scars if they warrant another chance to heal.

What have you been writing and reading lately? Do you have any scars itching to be reopened?

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On Tuesday I’ll be joining Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. Check it out and perhaps add your own link. I love hearing what others are up to in their work.

The Power of Poetry

inside cookie box poem 1

Over the holidays, we received a lovely gift basket from my husband’s aunt. It was beautifully wrapped and overflowing with cookies, crackers, pasta, popcorn, and the most delicious salted caramels. This was not something she picked up at a supermarket or specialty store. She had to make it herself because we are gluten free.

The phasing of that last line struck me. We are gluten free, as if we are what we eat, or rather what we don’t eat. But changing it to, we only eat gluten free, doesn’t sound quite right. The first rings more true. We ARE gluten free. We’re not trying it out to be trendy or lose weight (what a joke!), but because our daughter has celiac. It’s our life.

So, needless to say we were quite grateful. This box of cookies caught my eye right away…

best cookies

Bart & Judy’s The Best Sweet Potato Cookies In The World

Even before I tasted them, I loved the flavor combo, in part because I knew my kids wouldn’t touch them. They were mine, all mine, ha! Though I must admit a little wariness regarding their claim, “the best,” which is one of the most overused, and rather annoying, phrases on the web these days.

That said, these cookies are good. Really good. I love how they’re sweet, but not cloyingly so, how there is only a handful of ingredients, all natural. They are about as close to homemade as you can get, in a box. Plus they are so adorably petite, you don’t feel bad if you eat a dozen a couple.

As I happily munched away I checked out the box, whose surface was peppered with stories and quotes. As a kid my parents used to joke that I’d read anything, even the back of a cereal box. Some things don’t change. But what I never expected was what was inside… and I’m not talking about cookies.

Poems. POEMS!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Poems printed on the inside of the box. Are you kidding me?! Bart, the cookie maker, is quite clear what he wants eaters to do:

arrow to read

He includes three poems: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Billy Collins’ “Aristotle,” and John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Later when we bought more flavors at HomeGoods – cinnamon sugar and chocolate chocolate chip – I’d hoped for different poems, but they were the same. Still. Poems with cookies. When does that happen?

Now before you shrug and say, well, I’m not that into poetry (because I’m assuming you’re into cookies, I mean, I hope so), you should know: neither am I.

In fact, I have a history of what I call SPI: severe poetry intimidation.

Of course I’ve read plenty of it; you have to when you major in English lit and get an MFA. But reading poetry always struck a nerve of self-doubt. Still does. Without the familiar footholds of narrative storytelling beneath me, I falter and lose my confidence. Often I start with the best of intentions, but my attention tends to wander at the first roadblock. A phrase I can’t unlock, an obscure reference. It’s kind of what happens when I try to meditate. I lose focus.

Well. Clearly, I need to work on this, because if it weren’t for this box of cookies, I’d never have read “Aristotle” by Billy Collins, now one of my favorite pieces of writing.

He spans a lifetime in a poem. I wept through it, and not only because we were in the midst of dealing with poor Mimi, our dearly departed cat.

Though I do believe reading poetry during times of grief can help. Now, come to think of it, that’s when I’ve been most drawn to poetry. After my mother’s death, a friend sent me W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and I read it repeatedly, as did my father. My novel-in-progress (perhaps I should stop calling it an albatross?) has themes of death, grief, and survivor’s guilt, and I found this poem on Lindsey Mead’s wonderful blog, A Design So Vast.

Perhaps the answer for me, and anyone else suffering from poetry intimidation, is to take one poem at a time and release yourself from pressure to “get it” or even like it.

Maybe, if you’re feeling so inclined, check out some of my favorite lines from “Aristotle.”

From, This is the beginning.

Think of an egg, the letter A,

a woman ironing on a bare stage

as the heavy curtain rises.

As I read these lines, between bites of cookie, I thought, I can see that. I heard the hush of the audience as the curtain rose. The skin on my arms rose up and I continued.

From, This is the middle.

This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,

where the action suddenly reverses

or swerves off in an outrageous direction.

Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph

to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.

I love how right this feels, the messy middle, when there is still possibility, though the shine of it has rubbed off.

From, And this is the end,

the car running out of road,

the river losing its name in an ocean…

This is the colophon, the last elephant in

the parade, the empty wheelchair,

and pigeons floating down in the evening.

I was understandably flattened by the wheelchair line, since my mother was in one for the last decade of her life, but I could barely get through this last section without weeping. It felt like The End, more than just the end of a poem.

But that, I’m realizing, is the power of poetry, one that has eluded me over the years. A phrase lights up in your mind, dives down and burrows in your heart, where it beats and bleeds.

Not every poem will have this effect, just like not every book or cookie will, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read lots of books or try lots of cookies.

I’d like to know if you consider yourself poetry fluent, averse, or somewhere in between. What poems have left their mark on you?