Introductions, Susan Glassmeyer

I’m visiting family this week, but I’m posting this in celebration of two friends of mine I met in a yoga class at my gym a few years ago. We’re decades apart in age, have wildly different careers and personal lives, and under most circumstances, never would have done anything but nod politely to each other. Fate had other plans for us though, and  even though we don’t all make it to class anymore, every few months, we get together for lunch and have the best conversations about art and books and traveling the world. It’s just glorious.

Introductions

Let’s not say our names
or what we do for a living.
If we are married
and how many times.
Single, gay, or vegan.

Let’s not mention
how far we got in school.
Who we know,
what we’re good at
or no good at, at all.

Let’s not hint at
how much money we have
or how little.
Where we go to church
or that we don’t.
What our Sun Sign is
our Enneagram number
our personality type according to Jung
or whether we’ve ever been
Rolfed, arrested, psychoanalyzed,
or artificially suntanned.

Let’s refrain, too, from stating any ills.
What meds we’re on
including probiotics.
How many surgeries we’ve survived
or our children’s children’s problems.
And, please—
let’s not mention
who we voted for
in the last election.

Let’s do this instead:
Let’s start by telling
just one small thing
that costs us nothing
but our attention.

Something simple
that nourishes
the soul of our bones.
How it was this morning
stooping to pet the sleeping dog’s muzzle
before going off to work.

Or yesterday,
walking in the woods
spotting that fungus on the stump
of a maple
so astonishingly orange
it glowed like a lamp.

Or just now,
the sound
of your
own breath
rising
or sinking
at the end
of this
sentence.

Ash and Bramble, Sarah Prineas

 

Do you ever sit down to write and get sucked into creating the perfect playlist for said writing instead? I don’t typically have time for that kind of procrastination these days, but there was something about today…Maybe it’s because the internet and all its accompanying distractions went out an hour ago, or because it’s one of those epic sunny days with a light breeze that would have meant a day at the lake when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because my coffee isn’t strong enough to counteract how little sleep I’ve gotten recently, or because somehow the morning slipped away, along with the energy from that egg burrito I ate at 7. I’m not sure what happened, but I know I sat down to write this long enough ago that I need to stretch now. Pro tip: a stretch break after the first paragraph is written is not a great place to be, productivity-wise.

20652088It’s funny too, because fairy tale retellings are my kryptonite, and I didn’t expect to have any trouble writing about this book. I have the hardest time passing these stories up even if I’m meant to be reading something else, and this particular book kept me sane through a lot of long nights recently.

It’s the perfect blend of YA, fairy tale, dystopia, and SFP (strong female protagonist). Prineas and I probably are about the same age, and I could practically feel the bookish desires of my thirteen year old self oozing out of the pages – which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me now, but there was something so warmly familiar about it. It felt like a story I’d always wanted to read but never had, come to life on my kindle. And although it’s not a story I would ever tell myself, it felt like I could have imagined it after a summer spent riding my bike to the cool sanctuary of our old library, tearing through the shelves every week, frantic for new material. I could have fallen asleep and dreamed of Pin and Shoe.

Playlist for procrastination*

Dancing in Gold The Von Trapps
Dead Sea The Lumineers
Sunday New York Times Matt Nathanson
The Wrong Direction Passenger
Road to Ride On Joshua Radin
Headphones Matt Nathanson
Four Five Seconds Rihanna
Brand New Ben Rector

*Eventually I started procrastinating on the playlist, which is why it’s only eight songs long.

Night Shift, Charlaine Harris

Who could have guessed I’d finally manage to finish a book while traveling halfway across the country to a wedding in Memphis? Granted, Harris is ultimate summer reading material. This series, in particular, is so light that it’s not so much a popcorn read as it is…well, maybe it’s one of those lightly buttered microwavable single serving bags – definitely not greasy, grab a handful of napkins movie theatre popcorn though. What I’m trying to get at here is that A) Popcorn with extra butter sounds amazing right now, and B) I finished a book, and even though it was breezy, I feel like a champion.

51fbpkbfa9l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was stuck in a hotel room during nap time every day for nearly a week with nothing to do but read (not the worst thing in the world, although it did start to feel a little claustrophobic by the end). Also, I didn’t bother to bring my work computer with me because traveling with a toddler (and in this case, a groomsman husband) means I’m lucky I had room for clothes and a toothbrush. (All I can say is thank goodness for the invention of smartphones and their beautiful reading apps…) So, no work. No sightseeing or catching up on phone calls. Just plenty of air conditioned free time to go through my Kindle library.

I can’t say this is my favorite series by Harris, although I know my mother has really enjoyed it (only worth mentioning because she and I often are in line with a given book or series’ relative strengths and weaknesses). The plots aren’t quite as tight as some of her earlier work, but the characters are so likable that I had no problem finishing what I think is going to remain a trilogy about the fictional Midnight, Texas.

My biggest complaint about this particular series is I feel she gives up too much information too quickly. She may lack experience writing a three book arc compared to a six or more novel series where it’s necessary to draw out character histories and questions over considerably more pages, but I find it surprising since I’ve never noticed this problem in her writing before. It feels like she’s had these characters in her head for so long, and has so much she wants to do with them yet hasn’t allowed herself enough time to do it as naturally as they deserve.

That being said, Harris is still a compelling enough storyteller that I tore through this and wished I had another book by her to read when it was finished. I love her sense of humor and her light but accessible romances. She’s also one of a few mainstream authors in this genre who includes a spectrum of relationships in a respectful and loving way that I find refreshing (perfect for a wedding weekend, as it turns out).

While this series may not fall under my list of top recommendations, it was great for beating the heat mid July (I would have taken it poolside, but, you know, toddler). Also, did I mention I finished a book? In parenthood terms, there truly is no higher recommendation. Truly. You should see the stack of books I’ve read the first twenty pages of this year. It’s…substantial.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater

I hate when my busiest working season falls in the summer. It’s always interrupted by travel and bbqs and outings, and I end up half distracted while at my computer, and half worried while I’m out trying to enjoy myself. This year has been especially challenging with two major projects in high gear since the beginning of June, all of our family commitments long flights away, and a seemingly endless parade of distractions that keep me from focusing.

I suspect I could make good use of blinders right about now, but since single-mindedness eludes me, I’m doing  my best to multitask through the madness. That means, yes, I’m reading, but it’s slow. I get maybe a chapter a day if I’m lucky, and that doesn’t jive well with my reviewing schedule.

On the plus side, it does mean I get to share some of my favorite poems. This one has become almost a mantra for me in the last month. I read it once or twice a day and then spend maybe thirty seconds admiring the leaves rustling out the window. It doesn’t sound like much, but it serves to ground me, and to remind me of the fullness of life, even during one of its stressful seasons.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater
I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

The Happiest Day, Linda Pastan

The last two weeks have been so crazy, I didn’t even realize it was Thursday until about an hour ago. I was patting myself on the back for starting a book for next week’s post when I realized that next week was already here…

So this one goes out to everyone who walks around chin up when the balance of life is perfect, and has nightmares and dishes overflowing the sink and tiny legos stuck to the bottom of their feet when it’s not. Because we’re all just doing our best, right? We’re savoring the happy where we can while missing it more often than we want to admit.

The Happiest Day
It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day–
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere–
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey

A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. (p 162)

desert20solitaireI very rarely review books here before I’ve finished them. A couple of years ago, I read a few novels and posted multi-day reviews of them, but in general, I make it a practice to read first, review later. This isn’t particularly difficult to accomplish because I derive an almost obscene pleasure out of completing tasks before the deadline. It satisfies a part of me that is just on the edge of obsessive compulsive to do so, and writing about Desert Solitaire before I’ve finished it has the opposite effect. I’m antsy, frustrated, distracted by the fact that I don’t have time to finish one item on my agenda before moving on to the next.

Occasionally when this happens, I choose to post about a poem. However, given that I’m neck deep in edits for my own novel, as well as editing a resource book for Pilgrim Press that has seventy contributors, I foresee a few poem Thursdays on the horizon strictly by necessity, and I don’t want to pass up an opportunity to talk about this glorious book. Written in the sixties, Abbey spent a year as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Utah, and this is his luxurious memoir about those months.

I visited Arches with my husband a year and a half ago, and when I heard about this book over Christmas break, I asked for a copy from my father-in-law (my Southwest wilderness expert). He obliged, and then life got busy, and I forgot all about it until I was back east in March and saw that my brother also owned the book. I borrowed his, brought it all the way home, and then remembered I had the book on my kindle, which is where I’ve been reading it every night as I wait for my son to fall asleep.

Once inside the trailer my senses adjust to the new situation and soon enough, writing the letter, I lose awareness of the lights and the whine of the motor. But I have cut myself off completely from the greater world which surrounds the man-made shell. The desert and the night are pushed back—I can no longer participate in them or observe; I have exchanged a great and unbounded world for a small, comparatively meager one. By choice, certainly; the exchange is temporarily convenient and can be reversed whenever I wish.

Finishing the letter I go outside and close the switch on the generator. The light bulbs dim and disappear, the furious gnashing of pistons whimpers to a halt. Standing by the inert and helpless engine, I hear its last vibrations die like ripples on a pool somewhere far out on the tranquil sea of desert, somewhere beyond Delicate Arch, beyond the Yellow Cat badlands, beyond the shadow line.

I wait. Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see the stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation. (p 16)

Having grown up in the northeast, I was completely unprepared for how much I would love the west, the southwest, the northeast. Friends are always asking when I’ll move “home” to the quaint steepled towns of New England, and although a part of me will always treasure the years I spent exploring streams that flowed beneath covered bridges and forests broken up by old stone walls, my heart found its home under the huge wild skies of California and Colorado and Oregon. The canyon lands of Utah, the sacred responsibility that comes of making camp deep in the Grand Canyon, the rivers and rapids and stone of our country’s backyard – those are the haunts that beckon to me now.

Reading Abbey’s book – its blend of journal and myth – reminds me of how alive I feel just knowing that a place like Arches exists. His opinions and mine don’t always overlap, but it is a privilege to see the land through his eyes. I cannot rush through his journey any more than he could slow or speed up time that year, and I wouldn’t want to. Half a chapter at a time is as sweet to savor as water in his desert. I only hope I can make it last until my own thirst for the out of doors can be quenched with a beautiful adventure.

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless. (p 158)