A Beautiful Work in Progress, Mirna Valerio

I love my children. I love being a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend. I love that I have so many people who surround me with their love and their support. I love that as much as I lean on them, they also need me.

But. I’m also an introvert. I gain clarity, strength, and patience from being on my own. I get giddy when the door closes and I find myself alone in my own home, or sitting quietly at my computer in a coffee shop surrounded by others who are happy to be together but separate, or standing in the predawn light with my running shoes on and a playlist queued up.

511rwxq1f7l-_sy344_bo1204203200_At this particular point in my life, none of those things happen. I have a baby who refuses to take a bottle (completely unlike my first kid, who couldn’t have cared less where his meal came from as long as it was efficiently provided), which means the only time I’m physically alone is on the rare drive over to the recycling center five minutes away. (If you were going to suggest “the bathroom,” well, you’ll have to excuse me while I die laughing along with just about every mother in the history of mothers.) Five months in with baby number two, and I’m ready for a return to a little much-needed mental and physical personal space. For me, it’s a matter of self-care, and recognizing how difficult it is not to have that right now is one of the things that keeps me sane.

I’m not looking for a vacation from my life. My people are a special and loved part of who I am, but I can tell I’m becoming less of my best self because I don’t have that time away from doing for and listening to and being present for others. I especially miss my morning runs. Those workouts used to be the cornerstone of my mental health, not because I’m a gifted runner, but because they required a certain joyful grit to accomplish.

We have a saying in the world of education, more specifically in the area of diversity, inclusion, and equity. It’s an axiom to live by. With it, we will be able to weather many things—inconveniences, moments of shame, those times when we make huge mistakes, when we drop the ball, when our kids embarrass us (or we them), when some occurrence forces us far from our own personal boxes of emotional comfort and safety.

Lean into the discomfort.

To my diversity brain, the phrase means to embrace what is difficult so that you may progress. Welcome what makes you frightened and what makes your heart rate rise. Greet that sense of uncertainty into your life so that you may explore yourself more deeply.

Lean into the discomfort.

To my long-distance runner’s ears, this axiom means embrace the suck. A lot of long-distance running sucks. But what sustains runners are those moments of beauty, those instances where you feel weightless and unencumbered. We embrace the suck so that we can fully embrace what doesn’t suck, to fully receive it. (pg 286)

Finding this book (recommended to me by my mother after I mentioned how out of shape and frustrated I was feeling) has been a godsend. I wasn’t familiar with Mirna Valerio before reading it, although I know now that she has a popular blog (which I’m now getting caught up on) and has been featured in publications like Runner’s World. I honestly can’t believe I didn’t know about her before this. A plus-sized black ultra runner? She’s definitely an outlier in her field, but as a woman who doesn’t fit the lean, long-legged stereotype of a traditional runner, her memoir inspired me deeply.

It filled a void I didn’t realize existed. To read about a woman who doesn’t run to lose weight, but for the sheer joy of covering huge distances over difficult terrain – it was exactly what I needed as I try to map out the next few months of my life, as I shake off the exhaustion and excuses of the newborn haze and kick myself back in gear.

Of course, it’s easy to read a book like this one, to pore over it each evening as the baby is falling asleep in my arms and the toddler is talking himself down in the next room, and to feel that burst of energy that comes from getting out on the road. It’s another to actually do it. I can feel myself stuttering and shying away from how hard it will be to coordinate, to regain strength, distance, and speed, and to learn a new skill (running with a stroller – another experience my eldest child had zero interest in trying). I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get back to where I was, or to get to someplace better, and that’s frustrating. I want to have a plan in place, but I’m feeling out this new territory one day, one step, at a time. At least now, I can imagine Valerio, out on a treacherous trail in the dark of night, doing the same thing. One foot, then another.

What we are now is not what we were. Where we are now is not where we will be, unless we want to continue existing in the same reality over and over again. (p 299)

Coed Demon Sluts (Omnibus), Jennifer Stevenson

Nothing like jumping back into the mix after a few months off with a review about a five book series called Coed Demon Sluts. Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, or maybe it’s the constant parental wariness required when caring for an enthusiastically loving toddler big brother and a five month old who’s game for anything as long as it involves being near said sibling, but it makes me laugh. Why not talk about books that feature women who have made a deal with hell to become sex demons that are funny and thoughtful with a refreshing feminist philosophy?

81uhpceu5xl-__bg0000_fmpng_ac_ul320_sr214320_Popcorn lit is one of my favorite genres, and the best are those easily digested by the mind slop currently inhabiting the space where my brain usually lives. These books though, had the added bonus of exploring fascinating issues around societal expectations of sex and sex work for women and men, appearance as it relates to size, race, and sexual identity, and female friendships and support networks.

After the first two books, I was a bit concerned because I didn’t necessarily agree with some of the conclusions being drawn – for example, the women/demons are able to shape their appearance any way they’d like, and each of the original four characters choose tall, thin, young, impossibly beautiful bodies. I don’t believe that given the option, every woman would want the same template, but it did pique my interest around the way women often by necessity associate power and appearance.

It also made me all the happier to get to the third book and see this stereotype start to be dismantled in the rest of the series. In fact, as much as I enjoyed the first two books, Stevenson told her strongest story throughout the last three volumes. The five books are very much written as one, and although each follows one demon in particular, I found it worked better to consider each an extension of the same story.

Honestly, once a conversation gets going around male gaze, the worship of youth, racial bias, the long term effects of abuse, and the privilege surrounding wealth and beauty, it’s difficult to dismiss these books as light summer reading. I’m a huge advocate for read what you love (lest you read nothing at all), and I think it’s both appropriate and inspired to see an author tackle these topics in such an accessible way. It feels like Stevenson is really living out the idea of meeting people where they live, encouraging her readers to enjoy a mental vacation without sacrificing a sense of empathy and connectedness with the wider world.

Quick housekeeping note: I said I’d be writing again in September, and I’ve clearly got things well in hand (definitely not sliding in under the wire here – nope, not at all). It turns out, having two young children makes it more difficult to write, not less, and although I’ve actually read about thirty books since May, it’s been insane to try to get even ten minutes on my computer to talk about them. This post (and probably many of my future reviews) was written with one thumb on my phone. I apologize for any errors that might occur as a result. At any rate, I’m happy to be back.

Shoulders, Naomi Shihab Nye

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

This will be my last post until September. I’m taking parental leave, and I know that despite my best intentions, the likelihood of getting back here before the unofficial “start of the year” (for me, the year has and will always begin at Labor Day) is a pipe dream. Having one kiddo was busy – having a newborn and a toddler, I expect, will be chaos.

That being said, I never get tired of sharing Nye’s work with a larger audience. She has been one of my favorite poets (although she’s a wonderful author of fiction, as well) for over a decade now, and I’m constantly stumbling over her words, tucked away in some notebook or word doc I’ve saved, at the perfect moment. For me, this is that time. I’m on the precipice of a life change I can hardly imagine but feel deeply blessed to have, and at the same time, I’m concerned that our second child will be born into a world so dramatically different than our first.

Our first was a child born of Summer (I still remember being moved by that idea of “eternal” plenty when I read A Game of Thrones back in 2001). Although the world was far from “fixed,” it was still a hopeful period for this country. The rights of many were being recognized in ways they hadn’t before, and the political spirit was leaning toward uplifting the most vulnerable rather than trampling them. My own life, and the lives of many of my nearest and dearest were in celebratory periods, and I felt a great confidence – not only in myself, but in friends and stranger alike. I floated through pregnancy enjoying a sense of alignment with the world that I don’t think I felt before or since.

This time around, I’m much more anxious. The things I hear and see, the lengths people have to go to to be recognized with simple dignity, the pain I’m witness to in the people closest to me – it has been a far cry from the sunny peace of two years ago. I feel a sense of powerlessness and exhaustion to make the kind of statements I want to make for myself, my family, my neighbors, and those around the world who are suffering horrendously. And yet, this little wiggle, this busy kid I carry with me everywhere, he offers me great comfort. He is a reminder, when I feel overwhelmed, of my ability to empathize with other mothers no matter our differences, to have patience with the greater questions, to be as kind to those I meet as I hope they will be one day to him.

It’s a lot to get from a little person who hasn’t made an official appearance yet, but I’m profoundly grateful. The serenity of the world may not surround me right now, but I can still find it, still breathe deeper remembering my role – not just as a parent, but as a human being – is not to fix everything or celebrate always, but to keep my eyes open for opportunities to care for those who cross my path.

 

Be well, my book loving friends. I look forward to rejoining you in a few months and hope in the meantime, you find great books to transport and transform you.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

“I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.

I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.

american_godsI believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state.

I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste.

I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like martians in War of the Worlds.

I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.

I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.

I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.

I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too.

I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.

I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” Sam stopped, out of breath.

Shadow almost took his hands off the wheel to applaud. Instead he said, “Okay. So if I tell you what I’ve learned you won’t think that I’m a nut.”

“Maybe,” she said. “Try me.”

Am I the only one geeking out over the television adaptation of American Gods coming out in two weeks? I assume not, although I haven’t run into a lot of people who have been talking about it, so it sometimes feels as though I am. I had actually put it out of my mind for a long time (not a tough thing to do since I don’t have much time to watch tv or read these days), but all of a sudden, April was upon us and I remembered that this was happening and I had to reread the book.

Maybe that was a mistake. It’s been a favorite for a long time. It’s been well over a decade now since I first read it – all the way back to the summer after my freshman year of college, when a friend lent it to me and I stayed awake with Shadow and Wednesday during terrible hot August nights trying to get comfortable on the air mattress balanced on top of milk crates that I called a bed.

I had no idea what it was about when she gave it to me, and the only other book I’d read by Gaiman was Good Omens, which is a much different beast (it’s clear to me now, when I compare his solo work and his collaborations, what pieces come from him and which don’t, although back then, I had no idea). American Gods was complicated and dark and funny, and I loved it right away, even though I didn’t get it entirely. I never returned the book, and it’s travelled with me through home after home, earning a reread every two to three years when I happen upon its shelf.

Anyway, I picked it up again last week, and now I don’t know if I can watch the show. I’m kicking myself because I’ve been wanting to see this adaptation for such a long time. The book is so deeply imprinted on my psyche that I’m not sure what this new version – which looks good, but is not my own brain – will do to me. I think all book lovers know this struggle, regardless of the adaptation. It could be a movie, an audiobook recording, a graphic novel retelling – allowing another artist to take hold of precious source material is fraught. We may want it in the way we want more when we turn the last page of a beloved book, and yet a part of our hearts must acknowledge the great risk of getting what we think we deserve. It’s dangerous.

My usual defense is to distance the book from the adaptation as much as possible. Avoid re-engaging with the original text and allow the new art to be its own beast. I’m usually good about it. This time, I was foolish. This time, I’m plagued with doubt and I need the advice of my fellow bibliophiles: should I dive in, or wait a few months until the original is a little less fresh in my mind? I don’t want to destroy the place in my heart where this book has lived for so long, but also, patience is not my strong suit and I’ve been waiting years for this…

You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds, Jenny Lawson

I’ve been reading The Bloggess (aka Jenny Lawson) for years now. My friend and I have even done our own dramatic readings of various passages from her blog (mostly to delight/terrify the kids in the youth group we were leading at the time). She is hilarious, irreverent, and even in the throes of her own not infrequent physical and mental pain, dedicated to the message the Depression Lies.  Her newest book, You Are Here, is a testament to that idea, and to the possibility that the coping mechanism a person privately uses to keep themselves alive might speak to a wider audience.

you-are-here-jenny-lawsonFor Lawson, her anxiety and depression are so severe that she often must keep her hands busy to prevent them from, in her own words, destroying her. She recognizes that she is her own most dangerous and unpredictable foe, and to combat her body’s desire to hurt itself, she draws. Her pen and ink sketches are as intricate and lovely as they are inspiring. In the year before this book became a reality, Lawson had shared a few of her drawings with her online audience and was surprised by how well-received they were. People were coloring them in and then sharing them back to the community, and each individual take on the original was a mini masterpiece in its own right – a whisper into the void of mental and physical illness that declared I am (still) here.

The drawing below is one of my favorites. Before I had time to read the whole book, I was looking through the pictures with my son, and we stopped on this because he’s obsessed with dandelions. He loves all things yellow, but especially flowers, and the weeds we find on our daily walks – the dandelions and the California bush poppies – are his favorites. He’s quite good at miming the blowing of dandelion seeds, although he’s neither dexterous enough to pick them from the dirt himself or breathy enough to dislodge any of the pods without the help of his fingers. Nevertheless, he doesn’t get tired of pointing out the fields of them growing near our house or watching when I pick one out to blow on.

bag2

I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion – those vivid yellow flowers that bloom in the cracks of sidewalks or abandoned lots. Anything that thrives in such strange, broken places holds a special kind of magic. It shines bright and golden for a moment before it withers, but then – when most have given it up for dead – it explodes into an elaborate globe of spiderweb seedlings so fragile that a wind or a wish sends it to pieces.

But the falling apart isn’t the end.

It depends on the falling apart.

Its fragility lets it be carried to new places, to paint more gold in the cracks.

I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion.

But I think, in a way, I already am. (p 59)

This book really found me at the right time. The last few months have been an onslaught of phone calls with friends who have received unexpected and advanced cancer diagnoses, unusual and unresolved test results for all manner of terrible health crises, and my own exhaustion/insomnia cycle that inevitably rears its head when I start to feel powerless to help the people I care about. It hasn’t made for the best start to the year, but reading this book and studying the images that literally saved the life of a person I greatly admire has been a powerful reminder. It’s not that the world is always good, or fair, or easy, but that each person in it – even those who seem beyond saving, or who sometimes wish they were beyond saving – have a place, a purpose, a unique voice capable of remarkable insight and empathy.

Today I changed everything.

Today I took a shower.

Today I kept breathing.

Circle any of the above that apply. They are all a celebration, y’all. (p 138)

Still Life, Louise Penny

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a couple of friends from a yoga class I used to have time to take before I had to balance the work from home/mom lifestyle (if you’re  a parent and manage to do this and still go to such classes, bless you – I wish I were that person, but alas, I am not). The three of us are from different generations, and I never get tired of seeing them because as much as I love the company of my peers, it’s a precious gift to have long talks with women who have have experienced so much of the world, such passionate careers, and such diverse relationships. I always leave laughing, buoyed up by their stories and by the long list of book recommendations we’ve shared with each other.

811sqbhadjlFor the past six months, both of them have desperately been trying to get me into the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Penny, and while they’ve been on my list, they’d never quite made it to the top. Unfortunately, a new one had been released just before our last get together, which meant they did a lot of excited whispering back and forth (kindly keeping me from being spoiled, while simultaneously piquing my curiosity to an annoying extent). I finally gave in and ordered the first one for my kindle while waiting for our food to arrive.

I read Still Life while fighting off a few bad nights of insomnia that culminated in a stomach bug, and I can definitively say that Canadian cozy mysteries are the best medicine. Obviously, I’m already deep into the second volume, but I think the most delightful part of the whole experience was the email chain that resulted from telling my friends that I had finally caved.

From K: And they just keep getting better and better! Enjoy! So glad you started them. But don’t be like T and read them out of order. That’s just too upsetting.
From T: Happy you are hooked. Remember it is (still, I believe) a free country – read books in any order you feel like reading them.
Honestly, I was sick as a dog when I read their replies, and I still laughed. In order (like the obsessive compulsive I am) or out, Louise Penny has all three of us completely hooked. Even fighting over them is fun, possibly because it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to share a great series with people I can also share a meal with, and possibly because a little Canadian escapism is just the ticket for getting through this crazy winter…
Peter was willing the water to boil so he could make tea and then all this would go away. Maybe, said his brain and his upbringing, if you make enough tea and small talk, time reverses and all bad things are undone. But he’d lived too long with Clara to be able to hide in denial. Jane was dead. Killed. And he needed to comfort Clara and somehow make it all right. And he didn’t know how. Rummaging through the cupboard like a wartime surgeon frantically searching for the right bandage, Peter swept aside Yogi Tea and Harmony Herbal Blend, though he hesitated for a second over chamomile. But no. Stay focused, he admonished himself. He knew it was there, that opiate of the Anglos. And his hand clutched the box just as the kettle whistled. Violent death demanded Earl Grey. (pg 46)

Waterwings, Cathy Song

We’re on vacation this week in Kauai. We don’t take vacations very often because we live so far from family that we spend most of our travel time and budget visiting the people we love, but this is one of our favorite places to return to. My husband and I have been coming for years now, and every time, I’m struck by the island’s stillness set in a vast sea, by the pride of the people in their state, in the protective sense of community that extends to inhabitants and land alike.

I wanted to share this beloved poem by Cathy Song, a wonderful Hawaiian poet, to commemorate our first day of “rest” (as different as that may look seven months pregnant with a toddler in tow). Every time we come here, I find new stories that could only be told in or about Hawaii, but this piece I love because it feels both of its place and universal.

Waterwings

The mornings are his,
blue and white
like the tablecloth at breakfast.
He’s happy in the house,
a sweep of the spoon
brings the birds under his chair.
He sings and the dishes disappear.

Or holding a crayon like a candle,
he draws a circle.
It is his hundredth dragonfly.
Calling for more paper,
this one is red-winged
and like the others,
he wills it to fly, simply
by the unformed curve of his signature.

Waterwings he calls them,
the floats I strap to his arms.
I wear an apron of concern,
sweep the morning of birds.
To the water he returns,
plunging where it’s cold,
moving and squealing into sunlight.
The water from here seems flecked with gold.

I watch the circles
his small body makes
fan and ripple,
disperse like an echo
into the sum of water, light and air.
His imprint on the water
has but a brief lifespan,
the flicker of a dragonfly’s delicate wing.

This is sadness, I tell myself,
the morning he chooses to leave his wings behind,
because he will not remember
that he and beauty were aligned,
skimming across the water, nearly airborne,
on his first solo flight.
I’ll write “how he could not
contain his delight.”
At the other end,
in another time frame,
he waits for me—
having already outdistanced this body,
the one that slipped from me like a fish,
floating, free of itself.