Tomes, Billy Collins

It’s been a rough week month, and I haven’t had time to read a new book, or do much of anything that wasn’t absolutely essential, but I think January is over? Is it? Are we done with January, because I am DONE with January. Come back in a couple of weeks when we’re firmly in February and I’ll have something for you, I promise. In the meantime, I’m going to swim in a little Collins and try to get my head on straight. Feel free to join me!

Tomes, Billy Collins

There is a section in my library for death
and another for Irish history,
a few shelves for the poetry of China and Japan,
and in the center a row of imperturbable reference books,
the ones you can turn to anytime,
when the night is going wrong
or when the day is full of empty promise.

I have nothing against
the thin monograph, the odd query,
a note on the identity of Chekhov’s dentist,
but what I prefer on days like these
is to get up from the couch,
pull down The History of the World,
and hold in my hands a book
containing nearly everything
and weighing no more than a sack of potatoes,
eleven pounds, I discovered one day when I placed it
on the black, iron scale
my mother used to keep in her kitchen,
the device on which she would place
a certain amount of flour,
a certain amount of fish.

Open flat on my lap
under a halo of lamplight,
a book like this always has a way
of soothing the nerves,
quieting the riotous surf of information
that foams around my waist
even though it never mentions
the silent labors of the poor,
the daydreams of grocers and tailors,
or the faces of men and women alone in single rooms-

even though it never mentions my mother,
now that I think of her again,
who only last year rolled off the edge of the earth
in her electric bed,
in her smooth pink nightgown
the bones of her fingers interlocked,
her sunken eyes staring upward
beyond all knowledge,
beyond the tiny figures of history,
some in uniform, some not,
marching onto the pages of this incredibly heavy book. 

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly

The International Space Station is a remarkable achievement of technology and international cooperation. It has been inhabited nonstop since November 2, 2000; put another way, it has been more than fourteen years since all humans were on the Earth at once. It is by far the longest-inhabited structure in space and has been visited by more than two hundred people from sixteen nations. It’s the largest peacetime international project in history. (pg 23)

512ih0qk93lThis is the book. This is the book I’ve been reading over the course of the last month that I didn’t want to finish because I loved it so much. This is the book that has given my perspective a whole new sense of balance. This is the book that has helped me step back from my frenzied parenting and allow things to flow more naturally again. This is the book that spoke to the part of me from seventh grade that desperately wanted to go to space camp, even though I believed then (and still do now) that I didn’t have the right kind of brain to be an astronaut. This book is everything to me right now, and I know we’re only a few weeks into 2018, but I’m not sure there’s going to be another in the next eleven months that moves me as deeply as this one did.

What is it worth to see two former bitter enemies transform weapons into transport for exploration and the pursuit of scientific knowledge? What is it worth to see former enemy nations turn their warriors into crewmates and lifelong friends? This is impossible to put a dollar figure on, but to me it’s one of the things that makes this project worth the expense, even worth risking our lives. (pg 22)

Every night since the beginning of December, I’ve been portioning out this book for myself. I never let myself read too much at one time because I wanted the details, the danger, the scent of space to soak into my consciousness. I was feeling especially overwhelmed when I picked it up, and I needed to take a look at real worthwhile risk to reevaluate some of my own concerns. Yes, my kids have colds, but this man is taking an eleven hour spacewalk. Yes, I have to get everyone packed up for our Christmas travels, but what about the astronauts who were putting their lives in danger in order to for me to understand more about the universe, who were doing all this in hopes that one day, more people could fly among the stars, fulfilling one of my deepest dreams of childhood?

Today I am doing a Twitter chat, answering questions from followers “live.” Because my internet connection can be slow, I’m dictating my answers to Amiko and another public affairs person, and they are typing them into Twitter almost in real time. I’m answering the usual questions about food, exercise, and the view of Earth when I receive a tweet from a user with the handle @POTUS44, President Obama.

He writes, “Hey @StationCDRKelly, loving the photos. Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?”

Amiko and I share a moment of being pleased that the president is following my mission. I think for a moment, then ask Amiko to type a reply: “I don’t freak out about anything, Mr. President, except getting a Twitter question from you.”

It’s a great Twitter moment, unplanned and unscripted, and it gets thousands of likes and retweets. Not long after, a reply appears from Buzz Aldrin: “He’s 249 miles above the earth. Piece of cake. Neil, Mike & I went 239,000 miles to the moon. #Apollo11.”

There is no good way to engage in a Twitter debate with an American hero, so I don’t. In my mind, I reflect on the fact that the crew of Apollo 11 spent eight days in space, traveling half a million miles; by the time I’m done I will have spent a total of 520 days in space and will have traveled over two hundred million miles, the equivalent of going to Mars and back. Only later, when the Twitter chat is over, do I have the chance to reflect that I just experienced being trolled, in space, by the second man on the moon, while also engaging in a Twitter conversation with the president. (pg 189)

It was impossible to stay angry or frustrated or anxious for very long when reading about Kelly spending a year orbiting the earth. Daily annoyances don’t compare to the wonder I feel when considering what that experience meant for Kelly, his family, and the world. (Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware of several facts: 1. Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, are both astronauts. 2. After spending a year in space, Scott has provided scientists with invaluable information that is used to compare the effects of long term space flight down to the genetic level between himself and his brother. 3. Mark Kelly is married to Gabby Gifford, and the shooting which fortunately did not end her life took place while Scott was in space, which gave me a vastly different perspective on that event, as well as how intensely painful it must be – how huge a sacrifice is made on a personal level – by every person who goes into space.)

I received about twelve books for Christmas – books that I’ve been wanting to read for years – and yet I’m finding it difficult to start any of them. I keep going back and rereading portions of Endurance (the fact that this book shares a title with another I’ve been meaning to read, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, is not lost on me). I find it grounding to read about the challenges and adventure of space travel and also find it comforting to think that, when spending a year orbiting the earth, there is also the mundane to consider. There are toilets to fix, repetitive menus, minor squabbles between crew mates. Space is magnificent space, and humans are, well, human, no matter where we go. That combination of the extraordinary and the flesh are unbelievably compelling. This is the book. This is my book of the year.

Dressed and ready for breakfast, I open the door to my CQ. As I push against the back wall to float myself out, I accidentally kick loose a paperback book: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I brought this book with me on my previous flight as well, and sometimes I flip through it after a long day and reflect on what these explorers went through almost exactly a hundred years before. They were stranded on ice floes for months at a time, forced to kill their dogs for food, and nearly froze to death in the biting cold. They hiked across mountains that had been considered impassable by explorers who were better equipped and not half starved. Remarkably, not a single member of the expedition was lost.

When I try to put myself in their place, I think the uncertainty must have been the worst thing. The doubt about their survival would be worse than the hunger and the cold. When I read about their experiences, I think about how much harder they had it than I do. Sometimes I’ll pick up the book specifically for that reason. If I’m inclined to feel sorry for myself because I miss my family or because I had a frustrating day or because the isolation is getting to me, reading a few pages about the Shackleton expedition reminds me that even if I have it hard up here in some ways, I’m certainly not going through what they did. (pg 76)

The Dispatcher, John Scalzi

Welcome to 2018! I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t feel completely beaten down by having both children home with me for ten thousand hours, traveling, Christmasing, coming home and trying to unbury from traveling and Christmasing with said children grouchily underfoot every single second – nope! I feel completely refreshed, organized, and ready to take on whatever whole food eating/exercise more/completely overhaul home and self resolutions have been set! Really! Ignore the wild eyes, the baskets of laundry in every room, and the vague sense of stickiness on every surface. This year is under control!

34456052842_257517516e_zJust about the only grain of truth in there is that it is, in fact, 2018. And I have made resolutions that I hopefully can keep to turn this year into a more productive one than 2017 turned out to be. I haven’t made any in years, but I decided a little intentionality might go a long way when trying to combat the bad habits I’ve gotten into work-wise. (Unfortunately for those who visit my home, none of them involves becoming a more diligent housekeeper.) The one thing I’ve been able to keep up with has been reading some really great books (having a nursing baby is good for my kindle library). I feel like the last six months have gotten away from me in many ways, but I’ve stumbled on so many wonderful reads, it’s hard to be too upset about it.

This novella, The Dispatcher, was originally released only as an audiobook. I remember reading about it on Scalzi’s site early in the year, but I don’t have much interest in listening to stories, so I didn’t even put it on my mental list. It was only recently, when it was released on kindle, that I decided it had been too long since I’d read one of his books and picked it up. I think I read it in an hour – maybe two – and it left me wishing for more. I know he plans on more books in this universe, and I absolutely cannot wait.

Much like his novel Lock In (which has a sequel due out this year), The Dispatcher is an example of Scalzi’s masterful ability to skirt current events and turn them into compelling and hilarious science fiction. I read his nonfiction posts almost daily, and I’ve enjoyed his style for years, but I don’t read his novels often enough to remember just how much I appreciate his fiction.

Scalzi’s characters lovable and fresh, and his fictitious worlds are just on the edge past reality. Those realities spring from how humans have evolved – rather than how a particular technology has changed us – and that may be why I find his work so compelling. His sci-fi has a heart and humor that brings me back book after book, and if you’re looking for an intro author for this genre (maybe a new year’s resolution to try something new?), he’s a wonderfully approachable place to start.

Oh, you know…

I’m not organized enough (anymore) to have written about any of the five or six amazing books I’ve read this month. I meant to, but then, insert your preferred excuse here (dear friends visiting, cancer watch, baby watch, buying socks for the homeless, sending gifts to family far away, trying and failing to find a present for my husband, baking cookies). I’m sorry about that because I really do feel like I’m depriving you of some wonderful reads, but you’ll just have to wait until the new year. I’m guessing most of you have stacks of unread books sitting around your house anyway, so you’ll make it another two weeks, but next year! Next year, I’ll definitely probably possibly be more organized.

In the meantime, here’s a reflection on Advent written by my mother in 2012 that I read every year, and every year, it resonates more. No matter who you are, or what your life looks like right now, I wish you a peaceful end of 2017.

God, who asks
“do you want it gift wrapped?”
and means a choice of sunset

or a purple nighttime sky with stars,thank you for all the presents,
the sweet ordinary things —
elbows, chocolate,
toothbrushes, and running shoes,
people who become EMTs,
beagles in bed, old cranky prophets
who won’t let us forget justice,

and the hard re-giftings
possible in things you did not give –
road rage, Parkinson’s disease,
the deporting of our neighbors,
death by suicide
of someone we love.

Tie us with the curling ribbon
tendril of your love
when something scrooges us
and we can’t hold ourselves
together alone.

Maren Tirabassi

We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter, Celeste Headlee

When I began to work on my conversation skills, I asked myself: Am I doing the things Salman Rushdie does that make him such a delight to speak with? Was I listening to what people said and then responding, or did I simply wait for them to take a breath so I could say the clever thing I’d already formulated in my mind? After my third interview with the novelist, I started to take note of how often I listened closely before I responded. I realized I hadn’t really been listening to him, and that meant that we didn’t really have a conversation. I had just been asking unconnected questions, crafted in advance, unchanged by his answers.

33385019It’s easy to turn a blind eye to our communication weaknesses; we tend to make exceptions and excuses for our mistakes, and sometimes even go so far as to recast our weaknesses into strengths. For example, you may not enjoy making small talk with your neighbors at the end of a long day, but you tell yourself that the reason you avoid eye contact with the guy next door is because you respect everyone’s privacy. Or let’s say you’re reluctant to engage with your colleagues at the office. You may tell yourself it’s because you don’t want to interrupt them when they’re working or because you’re too focused on your own work to waste time, but the truth is you may not care what the person in the adjacent cubicle did over the weekend.

We have an amazing capacity to justify almost any action that we want to take or avoid. Pat Wagner, a management and communication consultant at Pattern Research, refers to these justifications as “virtuous flaws.” Of course, we rarely extend the same courtesy to others. We don’t talk to people on the elevator but say of a coworker, “She’s so cold! When I pass her in the hall, she barely says hello.” Wagner says we are frequently oblivious to how poor our interpersonal skills are and how they affect other people. We don’t know or don’t care that our tendency to interrupt is discouraging others from speaking up in meetings or that our failure to remember details makes people anxious.

Here’s an exercise I used to try to get over this perception problem. (It’s based on something that Wagner does in her workshops.) I made a list of the things people do in conversation that bother me. Do they repeat themselves? Ramble on? Interrupt? I wrote it all down. Then, I took that list to my friends and coworkers and asked them how many of those things they think I do. I asked if I do those things often or just once in a while. I made sure to impress upon them that I was looking for absolute honesty because the purpose of the exercise was to improve my skills and I promised not to be offended by their answers. This was a scary enterprise, but a very, very enlightening one. (loc 756)

This whole post could easily be filled quotes from this book, and you would be well served. My husband recommended it to me after hearing Ms. Headlee on a podcast (he listens to all the things, I read all the things, and then we discuss – it plays to both of our strengths), and I was immediately intrigued.

I’m one of those introverts who loves to talk with close friends and family, but recently, I’d been feeling a disconnect from some of the people in my life I’m closest to, and I was desperate to find a way to broach some difficult topics with them. I’d run through the conversations in my head many times, but I was feeling anxious and unprepared for the reality of sharing those thoughts. I knew it was crucial to go into the conversations with the right strategy, and I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of planning is not my strong suit. (Words that have been used to describe my conversational style include: brash, blunt, and somewhat generously, straightforward.) I wasn’t sure a journalist’s take on conversation was going to be the help I needed, but it seemed like a good place to start. As it turned out, a person who speaks to others for a living is a wonderful resource on what works (and what doesn’t) in conversation.

Headlee is the first to admit she has done many things wrong over the course of her long career, but in her efforts to improve, she has struck on some salient advice for those of us trying to muddle through more mundane conversations. What really struck me though was something she mentioned in the quote above – how she started to think about characteristics that irritated her in conversations with others, and how she realized that many of those traits were hers to struggle with as well. For me (and this is related to being an introvert, and therefore not always quick to follow the conversational gambit, especially in meetings or during important or complicated discussions), my biggest challenge is that I try to formulate my side of the conversation either beforehand or while the other person is speaking. The idea of pausing, of allowing empty space in the middle of a discussion is stressful, so my brain is always busy pumping out ideas (not always gems, either) to fill those dreaded gaps.

While I was considering this problem, I realized that in recent conversations with people I’m struggling to connect with, I was in overdrive. My brain was so panicked about the problems we were facing, I wasn’t giving the other person space to explore their own pain aloud without jumping in to offer advice or sympathy – anything that would patch over what felt hard to manage. Instead of focusing on their needs, I was absorbed in myself, and it was causing the rift to get worse.

It seems like we rarely converse anymore. I mean, we talk and we chat (often over text or e-mail), but we don’t really hash things out. We spend a lot of time avoiding uncomfortable conversations and not enough time making an effort to understand the people who live and work around us.

Once I really got into the meat of this book, I felt a huge sense of release. Here were some genuine and thoughtful ideas for improving my conversational skills, and when I tried them out in lower stakes situations, they worked! And I don’t mean just sometimes, but every time I used them, the conversation was more successful. (The only person it didn’t work with was my mother, but I suspect that’s because decades old conversational paths take more practice to diverge from – for the record, I was trying to be a more patient listener after a lifetime of her being the one who listens well to me.) I felt empowered to go into the conversations I had been dreading with an open mind, rather than a well rehearsed script, and the results were better than I could have imagined.

I don’t often read books that I feel everyone could benefit from, but it would be amazing if this were taught to children…and then also became mandatory reading for the workplace, driving schools, family reunions, political summits. We could all use this information to become not just more astute listeners, but better friends, and partners, and advocates. Communities on all scales would thrive from the education Headlee provides in this book, and with them, each of us as individuals.

If you’re still looking for a present for the holidays, consider this – and make sure you read it before wrapping, because the best gift you can give to the people you care about is an attentive ear and mind.

Happy Thanksgiving

The Summer Day, Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This is, perhaps, a strange piece to share today (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case, enjoy the coming summer months!). It’s Thanksgiving in the US, and this year, we have no elaborate meal, no friends stopping by, no plans other than to attempt to teach our oldest how to make pie and stuffing (the only two foods my husband can’t do without). A part of me wishes we had the distraction of a busy day. Activity is a pleasant diversion, and we certainly have much to be grateful for, and to celebrate.

Right now, however, we’re also struggling to balance the joy in our life with the immense sadnesses of several of our closest friends. They are not my stories to share, but I carry them heavy in my heart right now. On a day of indulgence, family, and tradition, I’m finding it hard to do anything beyond live in the tiny moments – the grasshopper in my hand moments – because the bigger picture is too daunting, and shadowy, and hard.

The tiny moments though, they make up my days with the frenetic love of toddler attention spans. They are tiny fingers clasped around mine, buoying me through tearfilled phone calls. They are ten second snuggles, and unexpected baby belly laughs, and the blossoming of brotherhood. They are a house, clean for five minutes before a whirlwind of adventure displaces every little thing, and a sink overflowing while we stroll in the sun. They are the careful attention of a two year old sous chef, and the flinging of small bodies into outstretched arms.

They are my salvation right now, and for them, I am thankful.

Nobody Told Me: Love in the Time of Dementia, S.R. Karfelt

AFTER MILLENNIA OF marriage and centuries of children, I thought I understood love. Dementia is teaching me so much more about it. It reminds me of that quote from Alan Bennett in The Lady in the Van, “Caring is shit.” It’s said while he’s fussing about the problems with the homeless woman living in a van in his driveway. Low brow as it might sound, I found it rather profound. Shit. You have to put up with a lot of it for love. You give it and you get it. Marketing and movies focus on the pretty parts of love, but there are all sorts of love and a whole lot of it isn’t pretty.

51dushu4z4l-_sx337_bo1204203200_Love is hiding in the lounge at assisted living and writing your mother-in-law’s name on her underthings so they can be sent to the laundry.

Love is Juan, after weeks of international travel, dragging his jet-lagged bones to assisted living and sorting through the hodgepodge of his mother’s clothes, teacups, and papers, and taking down all the wall art he spent hours putting up.

Love is Plan B or C or D or whatever we’re on now. It’s a Spartan plan. That means no decorations, just a couple boxes of pictures. 

Love is realizing that making Gummy’s new home like her old one was our ideal. We don’t know Gummy’s ideal, and she can’t remember it.

Love is realizing what used to comfort doesn’t anymore. Gummy’s been giving her teacups away. She doesn’t recognize that they belong to her. She hides them in drawers to keep them safe. Later she panics because they are disappearing.

Love is the nurses and aides who get hit and scratched by patients with dementia, and take it in stride.

Love is adult grandkids who get slapped by a grandmother who’s doted on them, and forgive, and comfort their grandmother in her dementia-fueled anger.

Love is people who take time out of their days to spend time with people who suffer from this disease. Especially those who give so much of themselves to Gummy.

I just love her, they say.

Maybe she can’t remember their names, but she remembers the love part.

Because people are people and love isn’t forgotten, even when particulars are. People suffering dementia still need love. It doesn’t look anything like the Hollywood version; it looks like work. Feels like it too.

Real love is messy and hard sometimes, but it’s all we’ve got. Yes, we love her, and, yes, she’s giving us a hell of a lot of shit. (loc 1561)

My grandparents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (both grandfathers) and dementia (both grandmothers) way before anyone else we knew was heading down this particular medical rabbit hole. My parents – both only children – were under the crippling burden of caring for their parents just as all of their friends were enjoying becoming empty nesters. I got to witness, for over a decade, two of the very best people I know share a terrible weight as they watched the people they loved best in the world slip away in agonizing fits and starts.
As my mother sometimes jokes (now that the worst of it is over, and their parents have passed on to what I dearly hope is better than the hell that is dementia), “At least we got a book out of it!” And we did. It’s called Caring for Ourselves While Caring for Our Elders, and she and I wrote it in partnership with a psychotherapist named Leann McCall Tigert in 2007, when we were still in it neck deep with my grandmothers. In the book, my job was to document what it was like to watch the so-called Sandwich Generation deal with the enormous stress of caring for both parents and children. Spoiler alert: it’s tough. It’s not, however, anywhere near as difficult as being the person doing the caregiving (a fact I grasp much more fully now than I did ten years ago).
I often think about my grandparents, who were so integral to my life, as I watch my parents and in-laws with my children. I remember them as the vibrant people they were when I was a child, and I also remember them as the vulnerable, sometimes difficult people they were in their late eighties and nineties – the deaf (my father’s parents) and the blind (my mother’s), the memory deficient (all), and eventually, the frail. I loved them all fiercely, and I was also angry at them because caring for them aged my parents just when they were supposed to be free.
The worry was everpresent. Every time the phone rang, disaster lurked. Trips were few and far between. Vacations were nonexistent. It was very much like having a baby, except that it was heartbreaking. These intelligent, compassionate, fascinating people were left greatly reduced by dementia, and yet even at the very end, there was so much love and appreciation on both sides.
I’ve never read a book that conveyed the balancing act better than Karfelt’s did. I put off reading it for a few months because I didn’t want to be sad; when I finally started though, I couldn’t stop. I must have recommended it to twenty people by the time I finished. I put countless bookmarks in it. I highlighted. I laughed. I read passages aloud to my husband to explain why I was weeping. I called my mother up multiple times and told her, “This was you! She’s you!”
When I finished, I felt as though a piece of my soul had been seen and recorded. The loneliness of dementia – of caring for a person with it, of having it, of hurting as it erodes familiarity – she captured it all. She made me think again about what it must have been like for my parents, about how deeply loving and present they were for so many years, about what a gift that was to my grandparents, and to my brother and me, even when we struggled with it.
Because people are people and love isn’t forgotten, even when particulars are.