May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind, (part the first) Cyndi Lee

Well, in one fell swoop, I went from the crazy lady cackling in Starbucks to the one hiding in the corner hoping no one noticed the tears and excessive nose blowing.

It’s my own fault too; I have so many great recommendations for light-hearted novels lined up, but I wanted something different. I almost always need a break from a genre after an especially good book, so I put aside biographies, memoirs, and literary fiction for just such an occasion. My policy for a while has been if a book falls outside of the novel comfort zone, save it. The opportunity to slide it into the rotation will arise eventually.

In this case, I had heard about this book from my sister-in-law, an incredible yoga instructor currently specializing in mentoring other teachers. She recently helped to start a yoga-centered book club in her area, and May I Be Happy was the first book they chose to read. I was quite jealous that living three thousand miles away meant I couldn’t join them for the discussion at the beginning of the month, and now, having gotten half way through it, I can only imagine how wonderful that conversation must have been.

Cyndi Lee reminds me quite a bit of my brother’s wife, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons I’ve fallen so hard for this book. My “sister” is the person who first convinced me to give yoga a try, and it’s her teachings that I come back to again and again in my own practice. Her teaching style and philosophy are so similar to Lee’s – they share a sense of humor, a compassionate classroom etiquette, and an awareness of the perpetual need to allow room for growth. When I’m on the mat, it’s not the teacher in front of me I harken to, but the woman who joined our family over a decade ago and introduced all of us to a gentler vision of what our bodies are capable of; I am reminded of her instructions to allow the body to speak its piece on any given day and in every pose. She is the one who taught me, patiently and over many years now, to listen to my body, to be delighted by its strength, and maybe most importantly, gentle to it when it is struggling.

I don’t think I’ve ever looked at her with anything less than adoration, much as I did with my brother when I was young and everything he did seemed effortless and brave. In the last few years, as I ‘ve discovered the potential in myself to be more athletic, my respect for her, and for people like her, has grown even deeper. Her strength is visible in every movement – in her posture, her walk, her ability to get my inflexible brother to stretch – and I envy what seems to come so effortlessly for her.

I’ve valued this book in large part, however, because it’s made me realize that all the things I admire in her are not, in fact, effortless. Lee is a world-renowned yogi, and if it doesn’t come easy for her, then I have to accept and appreciate that the effort my sister-in-law puts in must also be enormous. It must require not only physical strength, but a disciplined mind and a passion for constant self-improvement. That combination is not easy to come by. And having those traits, as inspiring as they may be, does not mean that a person wouldn’t have doubts and insecurities.

Lee tackles this subject with a heartbreaking honesty that pairs well with her quick wit. It seems especially poignant to me as we hear debates about rape culture and the conflicting values women are expected to uphold. As a woman, it can be both discouraging and inspiring to hear about the struggles of other women who seem to have it all together, and Lee certainly fits the bill – a successful business owner and internationally renowned speaker with a fit, healthy body – I doubt I’m the only person who might glance her way with jealousy and a little resentment. Lee talks about this idea candidly though, and from a place of great vulnerability; she’s made a career teaching both emotional and physical balance, and to reveal her own shortcomings is a brave thing.

Although I have already dog-eared about thirty pages of this book, this section has been one of my favorite thus far. It captures a mentality that sadly hasn’t changed much in the time between Lee’s youth and today.

Gloria Steinem was beautiful and smart and clear speaking. She talked about how the traditional role of women was expanding and inspired us to take advantage of any opportunity. She told us that no choice was wrong except the one that was imposed on us. She said whatever choices we made in the future— stay at home, go to college, get married and have babies, or become career women— were all valid paths for us as young women….

Of course, there’s a reason why she is Gloria Steinem; it has to do with vision, bravery, and a willingness to tirelessly spread the message that no one’s body— women, men, children, or animals— is an appropriate political war zone. Forty years later, I understand this. I love this. I love Gloria. But back then, I was caught in a riptide that flowed in two opposing directions. One wave was moving forward, taking me and my friends and even my mom toward becoming more confident beings in the world. I set my sights on living a life that mattered to me and felt respect for all women, including those who had a different vision for their future….

And then there it was, that other tide, the backward-moving undertow that sliced through my self-esteem and told me that what other people think about me matters. My personal perception problem was so typical that it became a completely normal part of life. (p 20, 22)

Her perspective on how self-loathing and criticism have been completely normalized (or perhaps has always been a part of our psyche) has opened me up to examine a habit I am certainly guilty of perpetuating. It’s easy to get caught up in a hyper-critical analysis of ourselves, in the rutted denigration of the same old flaws. We often don’t even notice we’re doing it. We have become so used to being disappointed by who we are that we don’t even see that this is reinforcing those terrible opinions rather than working to form new, more positive visions of ourselves.

This book is all about that struggle, about how difficult it is to let go of the comfortable, old ways, even if they make us feel terrible. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it this holiday weekend, hopefully coming away from the experience with a little more energy for gentleness and self-care.

You can follow Cyndi Lee on Twitter for more information about her classes and travel.

Clovenhoof, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Do you know what kind of people have meetings in Starbucks? Important people. People who wear well-pressed suits and order black coffee with no room (or, occasionally, on blustery, miserable Mondays, a venti upside down nonfat mocha with an extra shot, topped with whole milk foam…). They come equipped with spread sheets and projections, yet they’re always late enough to have to squeeze eight people at a table meant for two with absolutely nowhere for the all the briefcases to go. Then, of course, there are the matching neutrally toned tench coats that should be hung, but end up underfoot and trapped under chair legs.

It’s a very solemn business obviously, and although I have to imagine that these people work in offices with lovely large conference rooms and enough cushy chairs for everybody, I’m the one who gets dirty look for spitting my coffee out when this damned book happened to catch me by surprise. I work from home, people! This is my office (for as long as I can fake a few sips left in this cup), and if I happen to bray unexpectedly, resulting in a mouthful of room-temperature soy latte all over my one nice sweater, it’s my prerogative. You don’t have to stare and make faces; your disgust has been duly noted. Just go back to those bar graphs. I promise untoward delight will not impinge on the sanctity of your coffee shop meeting again.

I did promise (silently, because there were about sixteen of them and I prefer to save my smart alec remarks for people who know me better and are less intimidating), and it really wasn’t my fault that I broke that promise several more times over the course of an hour. I eventually took the hint that said joviality was truly not appreciated, and saw myself out.

The thing is, I’m usually an excellent coffee shop patron – very quiet and tidy, and I’ll even share the outlet if I have a full charge. It takes a special book to reduce me to a chortling distraction, unworthy of the chair I had to pry from a woman who was only using it for her purse. Clovenhoof is apparently one of the dangerous ones though.

“What do you mean, pretty much a paramedic?” asked the woman standing above them.

“I’m first aid trained,” said Nerys. “Can you feel your legs, sir?”

“I’m first aid trained too,” said the woman.

Nerys stood. “Listen, sweet-cheeks. I don’t mean I’ve just watched a few episodes of Casualty. I am first aid trained. I’ve helped out during several medical emergencies.” She pulled out her phone, flipped to her photo library and passed it to the woman. “Look. Here’s me helping a boy who was choking on a mint imperial.” Nerys knelt down again and began feeling the man’s arms for fractures.

The woman looked at the photograph. “How many emergencies?”

“Several,” said Nerys.

“How many?”

“Two,” said Nerys. “Including this one.”

“Two is not several.”

“Two is more than one and therefore is several.” She put her arms under the man’s shoulder and began to turn him over. “Sir, I’m just going to put you in the recovery position.”

“Oh, what’s the point?” he said, producing fresh tears.

“To stop you swallowing your tongue, I think.”

“Hang on,” said the woman. “Did you ask someone to take a picture of you giving this boy the Heimlich Manoeuvre?”

“Yes,” said Nerys irritably, getting the man onto his side.

“He was choking but you stopped to get out your phone so someone could take a photo before you stopped him choking?”

“Who wants to see a photograph of someone who is no longer choking?” She raised her eyebrows to her patient. She was sure he understood that the woman was some sort of imbecile. (loc 304)

And that was just a funny moment – not one of the sections where I legitimately laughed out loud. I’m not sharing any coffee spewing moments here – not to be a spoil sport, but because I swear they will be much funnier if you read them in context. (I know this for a fact, because I read out one a piece to a friend over Skype and she thought I was deranged. So, context.)

I have to admit I stumbled on this book in an unconventional way. I was reading up about one of its authors, Iain Grant, who is gathering interest for a collaborative writing project called Ten to One. I decided to submit a brief resume and writing sample for consideration in the project, mainly because in my experience, writing with a partner or two (or in this case, ten) is infinitely more fun than writing alone. Writing with others shores up personal weaknesses and it introduces ideas that can lead to far better books. Clovenhoof was written this way, and I think it worked out brilliantly. One of my all-time favorite books, Good Omens, was also written collaboratively, as was The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, a favorite from when I was young. While I have no idea what kind of writers will end up being chosen for this project, I’m thrilled by the idea of it.

When I left college and moved 3000 miles away from my family, my mother and I decided to write a collaborative novel just for fun. I was lonely, she was heartsick, and we both needed a way to stay in touch that transcended ordinary emails. It was from this desire that our clunky, silly (still unfinished) book was born. At least once a week, I would write a chapter and send it to her, then she would write another and send it back. The characters were related (both literally and figuratively), but their story lines didn’t overlap much. This gave us room to pursue our own plot lines while still driving the other half of the story forward. It was wonderful.

Even though the novel was not particularly good (I dare you to look back on something you wrote when you were twenty-three and claim it as anything but melodramatic insanity), it meant so much to me. It motivated me during a difficult transition, and it brought me closer to my mother. Most importantly, it was fun. Her chapters always made me laugh, and I loved that she looked forward to seeing my work as much as I did hers. After all the competition of the academic world, what she and I created was pure bliss.

I got the impression, reading Clovenhoof, that these authors, too, were having a good time with it. It’s a quality that shines through in a book, and one that I can never get enough of. I knew from the first page of this book that I would enjoy it. A snappy novel about the devil getting sacked by his sanctimonious board of directors and sent to live in a suburb in England? It was almost too on the nose in its targeting, to be honest. And a week before Easter, at that? I never really stood a fighting chance against its charms…

 

Heide Goody and Iain Grant may be found at their book-related blog.

As Lie the Dead, Kelly Meding

So, who thought it was a good idea to pick up the paperback borrowed at Christmas from my sister-in-law and start reading it last Thursday as a distraction from the mess of packing? It must have been me, because somehow I found myself bringing an unnecessary item with me on the plane even after I swore that I would stick to Kindle purchases for the next few months. It wasn’t my brightest idea, but then, sequels can have an undeniable power over the rational mind.

As Lie the Dead is the second (of four, I believe) books in the Dreg City series, the first of which (Three Days to Dead) I wrote about in December. This book picks up precisely where the first left off; it’s a rare move that I appreciate, especially in this genre, although the three and half month interval between readings did leave me a little fuzzy on the details of what had happened at the very end of Three Days. I’d never considered what challenges such a decision would cause for a writer – there is a finesse required when picking up characters right at the moment they’ve managed to escape the last bloody climax and shoving them along into the next adventure – until I tried it myself. I will be the first one to say the Kelly Meding does a much better job of it than I did. It was certainly worth straining my brain to recall a few chapters of another book in order to see where she took the story in this one.

My own experience in trying to take characters from one story to another was haphazard at best. In retrospect, I realize I didn’t have enough of the big picture sorted out, and when I got into the second part, it turned much darker than I was expecting. I kept looking for the snarky, comically lovelorn people I’d written months before, and they were nowhere to be found. In their place, I found fragile, damaged characters with histories I hadn’t even guessed at, and all of that back story really got in the way of the story I thought I wanted to tell. Stupid characters taking charge of their own lives – completely unfair in light of that fact that they wanted me to do all the heavy lifting when it came to actually telling the story. I was intrigued when I realized that Meding was doing just what I’d tried (and failed) to do. Her characters were getting thornier and more complex as well, but it worked with the direction of the series. The changes in them made it easier to understand and accept the story that was unwinding rather than seeming wildly out-of-place.

I admit, I was jealous. And, admittedly, distracted from reading in large part because, as much as I wanted to know what happened as a reader, I was more curious about how it all came together as a writer. (For the record, I haven’t figured it out completely yet, but it has certainly gotten the wheels turning, which is actually quite inconvenient since I had my heart set on working out the problems of another project when this idea decided to hunker down and demand my attention. Some day I will learn that I am not completely in control of this process and I’ll be better off for it, but today is not that day. Tomorrow probably isn’t either.)

Ultimately, I was impressed by how little of the story I was able to guess at as I read. I’m not usually the type of person to poke a stick into the conclusion to see what wiggles out; I much prefer to be surprised. In some cases, of course, writers seem determined to point the way with big, bold neon arrows, and although guessing at the twists doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a story, it’s nice to have a little mystery left in the relationship. Meding manages to sock it to her characters on a number of levels, repeatedly, until all I could think was that they really deserved a shower, or a nap, or at least some chocolate – anything to keep them going in the face of ever-escalating ass kickings and subterfuge – and she does it without giving away all of the secrets I expect she has planned for the next book.

 

To learn more about Kelly Meding, head over here.

I’m sorry to say there is no new post for today. I thought I would have more time to read after we got settled, but instead, we spent the weekend exploring our new neighborhood (in the cold rain) and blaming the pints of Guinness consumed on St Patrick’s Day. We also bought things like sponges and toilet paper and discovered that lactose free milk apparently does exist outside of the US (and is arguably better than what I drink at home), so all in all, an exciting weekend was had.

I’ve already gone for a run this morning (at dawn! with sun!) and walked another four miles looking for a park that was supposedly ten minutes away, so I’m clearly due for some serious book lounging this afternoon. I look forward to coming back on Thursday, hopefully jet lag free (because seeing the sun rise once in a given week is more than enough for me)!

 

Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery

I am terrible with transitions. I like change well enough in theory, and I’m fine with it after it’s happened, but when I’m within a week of upheaval, I tend to fall to pieces. Tomorrow, I leave on a six-week trip covering three countries and providing an opportunity to see a number of dear friends, and while I’m thrilled to be going, the stress getting ready has given me several nights of insomnia, near constant heartburn, and my very first (!) doozy of a nosebleed. (Yes, I have become that person who gets nosebleeds under stress – I’m looking forward to adding that to my resume of delightful quirks.)

The only remedy for the anxiety I feel about this whole situation was to go to the bottom of my bookshelf and pull out one of my absolute favorite books from childhood. I’ve kept quite a few chapter books from back then, but Anne has always been particularly special. I still remember the first time my mother read it to me. I would get to hear a chapter every night before bed as a treat, and when I was reading it this week, I would hear every line in her soothing voice.

The “Avenue,” so called by the Newbridge people, was a stretch of road four or five hundred yards long, completely arched over with huge, wide-spreading apple-trees, planted years ago by an eccentric old farmer. Overhead was one long canopy of snowy fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.

Its beauty seemed to strike the child dumb. She leaned back in the buggy, her thin hands clasped before her, her face lifted rapturously to the white splendor above. Even when they had passed out and were driving down the long slope to Newbridge she never moved or spoke. Still with rapt face she gazed afar into the sunset west, with eyes that saw visions trooping splendidly across that glowing background. Through Newbridge, a bustling little village where dogs barked at them and small boys hooted and curious faces peered from the windows, they drove, still in silence. When three more miles had dropped away behind them the child had not spoken. She could keep silence, it was evident, as energetically as she could talk. (loc 295)

If I had never read this book as a child, I might find its style to be overwritten for modern tastes, but since I have powerfully pleasant associations with it, reading a section like that transported me back to my own little bed. I found myself remembering details of my old bedroom so clearly – the chipped, pale pink paint and industrial grey carpeting, the little white bookshelf always overflowing, a rainbow-colored bedspread that clashed with my white and gold dresser. I can’t help but laugh at how little I decorative taste I was burdened with in my youth, and yet that room was filled to the brim with stories my parents told me, so I could never not love it.

We read so many books aloud when my brother and I were young, especially in that old house where even dinner time was likely to be given over to a family chosen novel, but Anne of Green Gables was always one of my favorites. Anne tried hard to be good, but she was always getting into gently amusing scrapes that seemed, both to her and to me, deeply unjust at the time. She also talked far too much and about the most ridiculous things, and although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, it was one of the key reasons Anne and I seemed like kindred spirits.  Although I often came across as reserved in unfamiliar settings, the secret very soon was spilled that once I got going on a tear, I could talk the ear off of anyone, and would.

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive— it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there? But am I talking too much? People are always telling me I do. Would you rather I didn’t talk? If you say so I’ll stop. I can STOP when I make up my mind to it, although it’s difficult.” (247)

I loved Anne, too, because as much as she chattered on, she also had a vivid imagination and was content to spend hours alone with it. I felt I must be terribly odd when I was a child and people would find me staring dazedly out the window or with my hands under still running water, completely lost in my own world. I felt a little happier knowing that other people still liked her even though she was strange in ways that I was too.

It was a deep comfort above all else, however, that one of Anne’s greatest flaws was one I shared, and it was one she only barely grew out of by the end of the book:

She flung herself into her studies heart and soul, determined not to be outdone in any class by Gilbert Blythe. The rivalry between them was soon apparent; it was entirely good-natured on Gilbert’s side; but it is much to be feared that the same thing cannot be said of Anne, who had certainly an unpraiseworthy tenacity for holding grudges. (2060)

If ever a line of text was written perfectly to describe me, it would be “[she] had certainly an unpraiseworthy tenacity for holding grudges.” I should be ashamed of the number of stories that pop to mind to illustrate that point, and I should be even more ashamed by the flash of pride I felt at how successfully I’ve held some of them…and I am, at least a little. It’s hard to be completely annoyed at a personal fault though, when one happens to be so good at it as to almost consider it a farmable skill…

Anne, of course, learns the virtue of forgiveness by the end of the book. It’s that kind of story, written in an era when wholesome novels about girls could encourage friendship, family, and adventure without necessarily dictating puritanical values. There’s no kissing or dating either, of course, although Montgomery writes a wisp of romance into this first volume, but I’ve always loved Anne’s declaration that “Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn’t do to drag them into everything, does it?” She is fierce-minded and proud, dedicated to the people she loves, bright, generous of spirit, and, as she says after one of her more trying mishaps, “surely born under an unlucky star.”

She’s a character who is difficult to hate because although she tries desperately to be good, she is also clumsy and outspoken with a terribly quick temper, and she seems all the more vulnerable for her faults. It’s a winsome combination. I will always be grateful to have had a girl like Anne to grow up with, and even still to keep me company now that I am grown.

 

Want to go on an “Anne vacation?” I did when I was about thirteen – it was dorky and wonderful. Go. Also, I was obsessed with the movie and borrowed it from the library an embarrassing number of times (that number was more than ten and less than 100…). Turns out, I’m not the only one who loved it

The History of Love: A Novel (post the second), Nicole Krauss

I didn’t think I would have time to finish this book over the weekend. We’re packing for a six-week work trip to Europe, and of the many, many things I do not have time for, reading is very near the top of the list. And yet.

History-of-Love-jacketA feeling of sadness came over him. All these years Litvinoff had imagined he was so much like his friend. He’d prided himself on what he considered their similarities. But the truth was that he was no more like the man fighting a fever in the bed ten feet away than he was like the cat that had just slunk off: they were different species. It was obvious, Litvinoff thought. All you had to do was look at how each had approached the same subject. Where he saw a page of words, his friend saw the field of hesitations, black holes, and possibilities between the words. Where his friend saw dappled light, the felicity of flight, the sadness of gravity, he saw the solid form of a common sparrow. Litvinoff’s life was defined by a delight in the weight of the real; his friend’s by a rejection of reality, with its army of flat-footed facts. Looking at his reflection in the dark window, Litvinoff believed something had been peeled away and a truth revealed to him: He was an average man. A man willing to accept things as they were, and, because of this, he lacked the potential to be in any way original. And though he was wrong in every way about this, after that night nothing could dissuade him. (p 116)

This book was hard impossible to put down. I should have been doing laundry, cleaning out the refrigerator, finding our travel documents, but instead, I sat in the car with the sun beating down on me pouring over this novel until my husband came to find me. I told him it wasn’t my fault; I was just desperate for the mystery to finish unfolding, or for the unbearable weight of human sadness to be lifted, for even a moment.

I climbed the stairs to Bruno’s floor. I was about to knock when I saw the note on the door. It said: DO NOT DISTURB. GIFT UNDER YOUR PILLOW.

It had been a long time since anyone had given me a gift. A feeling of happiness nudged my heart. That I can wake up each morning and warm my hands on a hot cup of tea. That I can watch the pigeons fly. That at the end of my life, Bruno has not forgotten me. (p 92)

And eventually, it was lifted, in its way. This book was a celebration of survival in the face of terrible grief, but as Krauss so beautifully captures, survival does not necessarily mean happiness. Rather, it means allowing for surprise, for curiosity, for the opportunity for change – even if the change that comes only brings with it more questions.

It’s a story about the opportunities that seem almost magical in the face of despair, and about unraveling how it is they come to each of Krauss’ characters in turn. It takes patience to understand the timelines she interweaves, to watch for the threads that slowly pull the parallel lines closer together. The story refuses to be rushed until the last few chapters when the entire lush, guilty world tumbles together; it feels as if the weight of the narrators combine then to force the words out faster. The momentum she builds is so subtle, I hadn’t even notice we had shifted into the downward trajectory until we were halfway there and flying already.

The History of Love exists on the border between the fantastical and the painfully real. Half of the time I spent reading it, I couldn’t believe anything in it was true, and the other half – the greater half – I felt like I was being pummeled by those big, special, secret truths we all hold dear.

It hurt, and it was grand.  

The History of Love: A Novel (post the first), Nicole Krauss

I wish I could remember how this book ended up on my kindle. If it was a paperback, I could imagine the little bookstore I might have picked it up in, but as it is, I have no idea where it came from. I certainly don’t remember purchasing it. I just know that when I went searching for something to read before bed Monday night, this was what I found. I think I started crying about a ten pages in.

History-of-Love-jacketIt was a good kind of crying though. It’s that kind of crying where it almost feels as if you’ve read this particular story before because you can viscerally recall the exact kind of sadness you’re feeling, and in its familiarity, it’s cozy. I wrapped myself up in it immediately. Here was sadness that I could get comfortable with. It helped that it was raining that night, and I had pushed open the window to hear it. Some books just read better with that particular of soundtrack, you know.

I didn’t even bother to try to finish it for today either. It wasn’t going to happen. I need to live in this strange, broken, beautiful world for more than a day or two. I have to soak in it. I have to steal pages in the morning before I brush my teeth or at lunch while I’m waiting for the car at the mechanic’s. I have to be patient with my sadness because epic and human sorrow deserves that much from me.

My brother and I used to play a game. I’d point to a chair. “THIS IS NOT A CHAIR,” I’d say. Bird would point to the table. “THIS IS NOT A TABLE.” “THIS IS NOT A WALL,” I’d say. “THAT IS NOT A CEILING.” We’d go on like that. “IT IS NOT RAINING OUT.” “MY SHOE IS NOT UNTIED!” Bird would yell. I’d point to my elbow. “THIS IS NOT A SCRAPE.” Bird would lift his knee. “THIS IS ALSO NOT A SCRAPE!” “THAT IS NOT A KETTLE!” “NOT A CUP!” “NOT A SPOON!” “NOT DIRTY DISHES!” We denied whole rooms, years, weathers. Once, at the peak of our shouting, Bird took a deep breath. At the top of his lungs, he shrieked: “I! HAVE NOT! BEEN! UNHAPPY! MY WHOLE! LIFE!” (loc 517)

 

I need to get back to reading, so go check Nicole Krauss out, and I’ll see you back here Monday. With tissues.