There are some books I read that I feel an immediate affinity for. I have to admit, this wasn’t one of them. It’s the second of the books my sister-in-law gifted me in January (Homebody Yoga being the first), and I’d put in on the shelf and forgotten about it until last week. I was looking for my Moosewood cookbook, and since I have limited storage space, I keep cookbooks next to the unread pile; as I was squatting there trying to ignore how incredibly dirty the rug had gotten, I had time to scan through quite a few titles when I came across this one.
I didn’t remember immediately where it had come from, but it seemed fortuitous. I’m halfway through a couple of novels but have been too busy to sink fully into their stories, and I wanted to take a break and try to regroup. Also, truth be told, 2014 has been a rough year (especially after ’13, which proved to be very lucky indeed) and it seemed important to pick up a book that might help to realign my priorities.
That being said, this is the kind of book that reminds me of people who love to hug. I have many dear friends who are huggers, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say I can count on one hand the people I like to hug, and on another, the people I’m willing to hug but would prefer to nod at politely from a distance to express my love. For the record, that hypothetical second-hand includes my very best friends in the world and most of my relatives; hugging, for me, in no way correlates to how much I care for a person, but I think it does say something about who I am as a person. And as a person, I don’t really like touching. Or touchy feely moments. Or books that encourage me to explore my feelings, even if they do so in a well-educated, thorough, and academically interesting way. Which this book does.
Stover is a fantastic writer, and she apparently also leads wonderful workshops based on the ideas she presents in The Way of the Happy Woman. I enjoyed the book and spent most of the time reading it in a meditative posture (as opposed to slung across the couch), which is a win in itself. I even found myself taking notes as I read, and when I looked back at them, I was amazed by how much I absorbed even though her style wasn’t quite a hit for me. To me, that’s a testament to how well-considered this material is and how relevant it is to my life. Even though I couldn’t help but giggle when she talked about the connection between menstrual cycles and the moon (yes, when I hear the word “menses,” I mutate into a twelve-year-old boy), I was able to get past the elements that didn’t work for me and be reminded of how important it is to disconnect from outside expectations in order to reconnect with myself on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.
One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by choosing to go for a run every day of Lent. Over the last few months, my body has felt more and more out of whack, and nothing I did seemed to bring it back in line. I was having trouble sleeping, eating well, and my exercise routines – usually a source of deep comfort – felt stymied. I needed a change, and although I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my normal workouts completely, I decided to add a minimum of ten minutes of running a day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but just knowing that I have to get changed and go out for a quick jog has reignited a sense of joy in the activity and motivated me to push harder and go further almost every time. I’ve come back faster than I’ve ever been before and more appreciative of the meditative time compressed into a short, intense workout.
After I finished the book, I decided to take up another daily practice. It seemed like I’d been making excuses about my brain feeling fried more recently, and while I’ve been doing a lot of writing I’m happy with, I can’t completely ignore an edge of creative burnout. I needed to try something new, if only so I could come back to writing with a fuller appreciation, so I went out and bought a new sketch pad, a pencil, and a set of cheap charcoals. I decided that everyday, I would reread one of my favorite poems and spend at least twenty minutes thinking about it and drawing something in relation to the piece.
I didn’t decide on this because I’m secretly a brilliant illustrator. I have very little experience in this area, truth be told, but in college, I took an art class that changed my perspective on the subject completely. For the first few weeks of class, I really struggled. The room was full of amazing artists, and all I could try to do was imitate, poorly, the work I saw happening around me. The only happiness I found was in our take-home assignments, which we did with charcoal in used books. I carried that dirty hardcover with me everywhere, and for the first time, I felt like there might be a spark of the artist in me. I give enormous credit to my professor because after she noticed this, she sat down and engaged me in a conversation about the problems I was having. I was embarrassed to admit what an amateur I was, but I knew it must be obvious from the work I produced. She didn’t care about that at all; instead, she asked me what I loved most. “Words,” I said. “Then that is where you art begins,” she told me.
I have never forgotten that moment, the freedom she granted me with that conversation, and in Stover’s book, it was that theme I came back to again and again. Her philosophy isn’t about perfection, or filling every day with lists of things to create superficial success; it was about reclaiming the parts of ourselves that bring us joy and a sense of peace. For me, all it took was deleting Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and suddenly, I had plenty of time to both run and draw. I stopped checking my email right after waking up and found out I had nearly thirty minutes every day to stretch while my husband got ready for work. I even forced myself to give up making calls for a week, and I realized that the long conversations I have on the phone are actually enriching my life, not detracting from it. I don’t know if these small adjustments will be enough to turn around what I don’t have control over this year, but they’re a place to start.
For more about Sara Avant Stover, go here.