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.

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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)

Fire Touched, Patricia Briggs

Is there anything better than seeing an email pop up saying a book you pre-ordered (and then forgot existed) is now available on your kindle this very second?! To me, it’s almost better than Christmas – a complete and wonderful surprise from a beloved author – it’s a happy enough occasion that it redeems even a week trapped inside watching the rain while a nine month old climbs the walls.

25776210Briggs, of course, was the author who got me through the last six weeks of my pregnancy and much of the summer caring for a newborn. Her Mercy Thompson series brings me so much joy with its lighthearted spin on werewolves, fae, vampires, and of course, coyote shape-shifters. It was painful that I could only read this newest volume in fits and starts, pages stolen during nap time (after chores and real work were finished – thanks a lot adult responsibilities!) and for a few minutes before I passed out at night. I told myself that I was just savoring it, but really, it was torture.

Now that I’ve finished, all I can think is, how long until the next book comes out? Do I really have to wait a year or two for more? This is a problem I often find when I’ve binged on a series and then caught up to real time production. My brain believes I’m entitled to infinite pages, but the reality is that I have to wait and hope that another email will pop up in the next few weeks telling me about a sequel in another beloved series I hadn’t remembered was forthcoming. The idea of such a treat will get me through the first long difficult hours after finishing, but the reality is, I don’t pre-order often, so I’ll eventually have to let go and turn to my shelf of perfectly good to-read books.

I’m not ready yet though. I’m still happy to daydream about characters I love, to swish this last novel around in my brain for awhile, sifting through it for bright shards of story I might have missed during my fractured read. It’s that bittersweet clingy stage all bookworms know, defiantly wrapped up in a favorite world even after the book has come to its satisfying end…

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

Since having a baby, I’ve found it less difficult than expected to write a post here every two weeks. I haven’t even found it all that tough to have a book read, which is almost more of a surprise. This week though, I almost had to throw in the towel. I have so much work piling up (do other writers find that this time of year is their busiest? I almost always have more work than I can handle in the winter/spring season) that even though I read The Rosie Project two weeks ago over several very long nights when my kiddo was sick and needed to be held in order to get any sleep, I’ve had zero brain power to think about reviewing it.

16181775It’s especially odd since I picked this up for the first meeting of a book club a friend invited me to join, and because I’ve never been part of such a group before, I was particularly meticulous reading it. This might not seem impressive until you consider that the book was consumed entirely between the hours of midnight and 5am four days in a row. By the end, I was so sleep deprived that Simsion’s characters were the only thing holding my night reality together. (And yes, when I finished it, I immediately ordered the sequel because I couldn’t function without this fictional world.)

Of course, when I went to the meeting last week, it was mostly an excuse to eat and drink wine sans children – not that I’m complaining – but the discussion about the book was more limited than I’d expected. (I was impressed that out of seven of us, six had completed the novel, which apparently is pretty rare.) It felt good to join a group of women who were excited enough about reading (anything without pictures) that they were willing to do the work even if, in the end, it wasn’t exactly the point of the evening.

I only knew one person that night, and I found it exciting to talk to doctors, pharmacists, engineers, and salsa dancers about this sweet little love story. It’s so easy to get lost in my own perspective as a writer; I was fascinated by other interpretations of the characters and their motivations. As it is, I rarely read the same books as my friends, and writing about what I read here is the closest I come to having a community of like-minded readers to tap into. We bookworms tend to be a comfortable with solitude, but many of us would also agree that there is real pleasure associated with sharing a good read.

I’m not sure I ever would have come across this book without the suggestion of the group. The Rosie Project is about a socially awkward professor of genetics (he almost certainly falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum) who is looking for a wife using his own scientific method (a sixteen page questionnaire) to weed out “time-wasting, incompatible” candidates. I was a little put off by the idea at first (I was afraid the book would be insensitive to such a protagonist), but after two chapters, I was hooked. Don Tillman is an unusual hero, and I couldn’t help but root for him. He isn’t limited by his idiosyncrasies; instead, they define a starting point for his growth. Simsion clearly understood his protagonist inside and out, and he treats him with gentle affection.

It made for a wonderful escape from a stressful week. I slipped easily back into Don’s challenges every evening. His very relatable problems made for a good jumping off point in book club as well. We ended up talking about bad dates (one memorable story ended up in traction, another, vomiting non-stop from food poisoning), compatibility, and deal-breaking quirks in a partner. I know more about some of those women after two hours than I do acquaintances I’ve known for years! Plus, I got to drink an entire glass of wine while sitting with my feet up, and at this point in my life, there is very little that can beat such luxury when combined with a good book…

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson

And then, at four a.m. I decided that the only thing that would cure my insomnia/ anxiety would be a long walk. In the snow. I pulled a coat on over my nightgown, slipped on my flats, and went downstairs. My foot was killing me as I tiptoed outside, nodding quietly to the confused man at the night desk, who looked puzzled to see me leave in my pajamas. Then I walked out into a New York night, which was muffled by snow, a thick white blanketing of powder that not a single person had put a step into. I could hear a drunk yelling for a cab down the street but it was comforting to not be the only person out in that weather. Sure, I was in my pajamas and I had been stabbed in the foot by arthritis, but at least I was mostly sober and not too far from a warm bed.

My foot ached. As I took a step the sharp pain shot all the way up to my spine. And that’s when I just said, “Oh fuck it,” and carefully stepped out of my shoes into the gleaming white snow.1005_furiously-happy

It was freezing, but the cold effortlessly numbed my feet and aching hands. I walked quietly, barefoot, to the end of the block, leaving my shoes behind to remind me how to find my way home. I stood at the end of the street, catching snow in my mouth, and laughed softly to myself as I realized that without my insomnia and anxiety and pain I’d never have been awake to see the city that never sleeps asleep and blanketed up for winter. I smiled and felt silly, but in the best possible way.

As I turned and looked back toward the hotel I noticed that my footprints leading out into the city were mismatched. One side was glistening, small and white. The other was misshapen from my limp and each heel was pooled with spots of bright red blood. It struck me as a metaphor for my life. One side light and magical. Always seeing the good. Lucky. The other side bloodied, stumbling. Never quite able to keep up. (loc 833-846)

Jenny Lawson, better known across the internet as The Bloggess, has been a hero of mine for many years nows. Online, she has long been known as a beacon of hope, insanity, laughter and truth to a proudly peculiar tribe of people. I read her blog faithfully, content to follow along as she writes about everything from the effect depression and chronic pain have on her, to a life-long love of crazily taxidermied animals, to the outrageous “arguments” she has with her husband Victor.

She is one of only a handful of people who can make me laugh to tears (and not occasionally – a few times a month, at least). Lawson is also an incredibly brave and vulnerable writer, and her ability to open up discussions about topics often deemed shameful by polite society has saved lives. I loved her first book, but there’s no doubt she has only gotten better with this second one.

Her epic ability to weave her life stories into a book that speaks to its readers on so many levels is undeniable. Instead of sugarcoating her own struggles, she presents them bare faced – half the time as jester, the other half as bedraggled seer – recognizing that many readers will walk away from her book feeling more known than they ever have before.

Her life has been anything but easy, and although she has achieved fame and fortune she probably never imagined, Lawson hasn’t lost her perspective in the least. She’s still a friend to hurting souls who need a place to lay down their burdens and laugh for awhile. She’s still a person who understands intimately just how heavy those burdens can be. She’s still a treasure to those of us driven to speak about the unspeakable.

Do you know about the spoons? Because you should.

The Spoon Theory was created by a friend of mine, Christine Miserandino, to explain the limits you have when you live with chronic illness. Most healthy people have a seemingly infinite number of spoons at their disposal, each one representing the energy needed to do a task. You get up in the morning. That’s a spoon. You take a shower. That’s a spoon. You work, and play, and clean, and love, and hate, and that’s lots of damn spoons … but if you are young and healthy you still have spoons left over as you fall asleep and wait for the new supply of spoons to be delivered in the morning.

But if you are sick or in pain, your exhaustion changes you and the number of spoons you have. Autoimmune disease or chronic pain like I have with my arthritis cuts down on your spoons. Depression or anxiety takes away even more. Maybe you only have six spoons to use that day. Sometimes you have even fewer. And you look at the things you need to do and realize that you don’t have enough spoons to do them all. If you clean the house you won’t have any spoons left to exercise. You can visit a friend but you won’t have enough spoons to drive yourself back home. You can accomplish everything a normal person does for hours but then you hit a wall and fall into bed thinking, “I wish I could stop breathing for an hour because it’s exhausting, all this inhaling and exhaling.” And then your husband sees you lying on the bed and raises his eyebrow seductively and you say, “No. I can’t have sex with you today because there aren’t enough spoons,” and he looks at you strangely because that sounds kinky, and not in a good way. And you know you should explain the Spoon Theory so he won’t get mad but you don’t have the energy to explain properly because you used your last spoon of the morning picking up his dry cleaning so instead you just defensively yell: “I SPENT ALL MY SPOONS ON YOUR LAUNDRY,” and he says, “What the … You can’t pay for dry cleaning with spoons. What is wrong with you?”

Now you’re mad because this is his fault too but you’re too tired to fight out loud and so you have the argument in your mind, but it doesn’t go well because you’re too tired to defend yourself even in your head, and the critical internal voices take over and you’re too tired not to believe them. Then you get more depressed and the next day you wake up with even fewer spoons and so you try to make spoons out of caffeine and willpower but that never really works. The only thing that does work is realizing that your lack of spoons is not your fault, and to remind yourself of that fact over and over as you compare your fucked-up life to everyone else’s just-as-fucked-up-but-not-as-noticeably-to-outsiders lives.

Really, the only people you should be comparing yourself to would be people who make you feel better by comparison. For instance, people who are in comas, because those people have no spoons at all and you don’t see anyone judging them. Personally, I always compare myself to Galileo because everyone knows he’s fantastic, but he has no spoons at all because he’s dead. So technically I’m better than Galileo because all I’ve done is take a shower and already I’ve accomplished more than him today. If we were having a competition I’d have beaten him in daily accomplishments every damn day of my life. But I’m not gloating because Galileo can’t control his current spoon supply any more than I can, and if Galileo couldn’t figure out how to keep his dwindling spoon supply I think it’s pretty unfair of me to judge myself for mine.

I’ve learned to use my spoons wisely. To say no. To push myself, but not too hard. To try to enjoy the amazingness of life while teetering at the edge of terror and fatigue. (locs 3265-3294)

Honestly, if I were you, I would just head over to her site and drink it all in, and then buy her books and spend the weekend in bed feeling loved and known and crazy in the best possible way.

 

Hellzapoppin’, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Sometimes I think back on the first book I read by Iain Grant and Heide Goody. I had just seen a tweet that John Scalzi had shared about a contest for writers interested in working on a collaborative novel. I wish now that I’d saved it because I can’t remember what it was about those hundred or so characters that piqued my interest. I felt compelled to click through and find out more though, and it led to a life changing novel writing experience for me. 

I’ve been writing books for many years, but learning to trust writers I’ve (still) never met was both a challenge and discovery of one of my true passions. I don’t just like to write – I want to collaborate. I love taking ideas generated by a bunch of half-crazy people and helpin71myanzzgzlg to turn them into something beautiful. Goody and Grant are, I suspect, a lot like me in that respect. They don’t shy away from the complications of writing books together, and what I discovered reading that first book was that they have a real gift for it. 

Of course, back then, I was lounging around in a coffee shop in London, soaking up my time as an ex-pat and grasping every opportunity that flew within reach. I was exploring a country and culture just different enough from my own that it felt like tripping into a mirror image. I was comfortable. I had spare time. I could consume caffeine with zero consequences. It was another time. 

Reading this latest installment of the Clovenhoof books took a lot longer. I mostly had to skim, juggling my phone while my all of a sudden loathes nursing baby flailed around, trying to smack it out of my hands. There was zero lounging involved, let me tell you. It was more like a full contact sport – how many pages could I get through before a tiny but surprisingly strong arm knocked it out of reach? (Somewhere between half a page and six, in case you were curious.)

As a result, it took me longer to get into this volume. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like it as much as I had the earlier books until I was about a third of the way in. Once I understood where these new characters stood (and had more than fourteen seconds to read about them), I was hooked. I found myself trying to unwind where Grant began and Goody stopped, but it was seamless, just as their earlier books have been. 

I have to say that there’s something odd about visiting authors I read before I was a mother. I haven’t had much opportunity to do it, but with the few sequels I’ve gotten to since June, I find myself comparing the before and after experience. It was much different, being a reader before parenthood. Even at my busiest, in comparison to my life now, it seems like I had loads of time to lay around getting lost in a good book. It was a luxury I’m not sure I fully appreciated. I can’t get lost anymore. I can only dip in and out of a book like a kid learning to hold her breath underwater.

It has made reading even more of a necessity. My world has, at least temporarily, shrunk, and books – both new and familiar – make me giddily part of the wider world. Every day, my son and I read every one of his books (I’m guessing he has thirty or so in his budding collection), and then we move on to the library books. We fill our days with words, and it’s amazing to me that he seems to love it as much as I do. 

Even as he grows to appreciate his books more, the amount of time I have to read my own shrinks, and I cling to every flailing opportunity. I’ve come a long way since I first discovered Goody and Grant, and I suspect I still have a ways to go yet. I’m glad every now and again, I can grab one of their books and know I have a good laugh and a bit of nostalgia waiting for me.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Welcome to 2016! I’m not going to crack any jokes about making or breaking resolutions a week in as it’s been years since I’ve even considered making some of my own, and honestly, the only other thing I can think of right now is that we’re now officially in Election year, and the whole political circus is going to be amped up to eleven until November. Just thinking about it is making me tired, so instead of dwelling on the questionable success of new starts and uncontrollable windbaggery, let’s break open that bag of emergency marshmallows (what? You don’t have an emergency bag of marshmallows?!) and make some reading-escape appropriate cocoa.

20910157Now, that we’ve settled in, I have to admit I’ve been on a little break from novels the last two months. During November, I was doing my own new-mom adaptation of National Novel Writing Month, where, instead of writing a completely impossible 50,000 words, I was trying to finish the first draft of the cozy mystery started last summer. Spoiler alert: I failed. I did get five chapters written, which was certainly better than nothing, but I had to extend my deadline to December 31 (which fortunately, I was able to meet). 

The whole endeavor was surprisingly difficult even though I was only eight chapters from the end. It was also much harder than any of the years I’ve done a traditional NANO novel, probably because I care more about this book than I do the crazy stories I’ve written in great speed in the past. On top of that, I care more about my son than I do about deadlines, which is both wonderful and challenging. On the one hand, writing makes me feel like a million bucks – on the other, well, I’m not the first parent to struggle with this particular problem.

But I digress. I was talking about my break from novels, not lamenting the existence Hermione Granger’s time-turner. I like to take a break from fiction when I’m doing a lot of my own writing. It clears my head and allows me to focus on working through those ideas rather than procrastinating with another writer’s story. Obviously, I can’t just give up reading though, so I often find myself a little niche to explore. This time around, it has been comediennes. 

Amy Poehler’s book was a recommended read after I finished Mindy Kaling’s, although it was a far different experience. Poehler is a much more serious person than I realized, and her book certainly reflects that. Unlike Tina Fey or Kaling, her focus is less on a laugh out loud read (although I did) than it is a grittier look at her own experiences. She hasn’t sugar-coated her past failures here. She’s done some things that certainly don’t endear her, but her response to those choices, and her perspective as an older comic and woman were powerful and worthy of respect. 

This is a woman who has worked incredibly hard and has lived a fascinating, if challenging life. She hasn’t done everything perfectly, but that’s shaped her comedy and made her, in my opinion, more worthy of her success. It was passages such as this one that touched me deeply and made this book special:

The hardest day in Haiti for me was when we visited a few orphanages. Some of these places were doing the best they could. Others had a long way to go. Jane’s colleague Noah and I saw babies living in cribs that looked like cages. A little boy named Woosley jumped into Noah’s arms and wouldn’t let go. He was desperate for attachment, and men were especially scarce. Woosley held on to Noah like a bramble. We were filled with anxiety because we knew we would have to say good-bye. Noah had to drop him back off at his crowded room, and Woosley hung on and started to get upset. He finally got down and faced a corner as he cried. It was the loneliest thing I have ever seen. A teacher went to him, but it barely comforted him.

Those kids needed so much holding. Kisses and hugs and clothes and parents. They needed everything. The enormity of what they needed was so intense. We ended up talking in the street with Jane, and crying. Jane was agitated and passionate. She talked about all the work left to do and all the small changes that can improve children’s lives. I was once again moved by her ability to steer into the curve. Jane was a big-wave rider. She didn’t make the mistake that most of us make, which is to close our eyes and hope the waves will go away or miss us or hit someone else. She dove in, headfirst. That night, I read the deeply calm and at times sneakily funny Pema Chödrön, one my favorite writers: “There are no promises. Look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.” Pema reminded me to practice tonglen, which is this meditation breathing exercise where you breathe in all the pain and breathe out nothing but love. It felt like the opposite of what I had been doing for a year. I felt one tiny molecule in the bottom of my heart feel better. (loc 3224)

Godsquad, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

This is going to be my last review pre-baby arrival. Although I’ve discovered already how hard it is to take proper maternity leave as a freelancer, I think it’s important to try and separate from work to enjoy family bonding/spend any sliver of downtime I may have sleeping. The plan is to be back with new reviews beginning on September 17 (slightly more than three months so that I may enjoy traveling to and being in a wedding at the beginning of September), and I look forward to the new perspective motherhood brings to my literary life. While I suspect part of my brain will go numb from board book repetition, I also hope this change will lead me down even more interesting avenues.

That being said, this final book is one written by my colleagues across the pond (and for the record, even though I begged for a pre-release copy, I had to wait and purchase one at the same time as the rest of the world – truly a poor execution of cronyism if I ever saw one!). I read the first book in the series, Clovenhoofbefore I decided to work with Goody and Grant, and it remains a beloved favorite in the vein of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. 

Growing up the daughter of a UCC minister, I was privy to an odd perspective on the church, and on religion in general. While I have a deep respect for my own beliefs and those of others, I couldn’t help but see the thread of absurdity that often unravels in congregations. I never took my Sunday School lessons as seriously as my friends in part because I could see what was behind the curtain (the work that went into writing sermons, the vast energy required for counseling people, the patience necessary for handling disagreements over what tablecloth should be used on the communion table…). At a very young age, I determined that church was a place of instilling values and a sense of community, not necessarily having a relationship with God. I was content with that though, because as much as I love structure and routine, faith doesn’t really fit into such strictures. It’s found by those searching for it over some of the roughest courses of life. It lends itself to ridiculous situations, to the impossible, to moments of deep trauma and to great adventure. 

As a result of this flexibility, I’ve always found that the topic makes for some of the very funniest books. Humor is so revealing. We pretend that it protects us, but it often ends up exposing some of the most interesting conversations about the choices we make, the people we follow, and lives we have as a result of those decisions. All three of the books Grant and Goody have written in this series have fallen into that vein. I can’t help but laugh out loud when I read them, but I’ve also found myself quite moved by some of their subtle insights into human nature versus the divine. 

I think the greatest praise I can give them (and this series) can be best understood by a different yardstick though. I’ve never met either Iain or Heide in person, and yet not only did I desperately want to work with them on Circ, I also trusted and respected their talent enough to brutally edit down my own work when they suggested that it was necessary. I doubt writers are the only people who will appreciate what high praise this is – anyone who has put their heart into a project and then had to make major changes will understand such vulnerability. We often have to take feedback from editors, managers, and bosses who we think less of, but when we submit ourselves to the inspection of opinions we respect, it generally results in a combination of nausea and gratification…and, quite frankly, superior results. I know for a fact I’m a better writer having worked with them, and I also know I’m a happier reader knowing I have more of their books to look forward to in the future.

For more about Grant and Goody, head over here