Too Fat For Europe, Joe Leibovich

In honor of my mother’s birthday, I’m taking today to talk about one of our shared passions (beside books – books are definitely at the top of the list, and chocolate is a relatively close third), travel. I’ve loved and pursued the love of exploring the world for many years now, placing the ability to get up and go above many other material pleasures (most notably, owning a house, and for many years, a car). When I was in junior high and high school, my mother and I would go on a little trip together every year – something separate from the car trips we would take with my brother and dad once a summer – usually connected to an event she had to lead in another part of the country. This typically meant we would go a few days early and stay in a cheap motel or at the house of a friend who was out-of-town, do some exploring, and then I would fly home alone while she went to work.

When I was in high school, I opted to go on my first international trips with the Junior World Council and the Biology Club, a decision to this day that I’m grateful for. I had a glass jar each year that I filled with money from babysitting jobs or summer work that would then go toward plane tickets and expenses. This meant that by the time I graduated, I had been to Belize, Italy, and the UK, and I was thoroughly hooked. It also meant that I found the most valuable time in college was spent during my semester abroad, where I was able to use the Netherlands as a jumping off point to visit twelve other countries. While I’m sure I also learned something from the classes I was taking at the time, none of those lessons stand out as clearly as the ones I learned in places where I had little money, no access to a shower, and couldn’t understand a word around me.

During that semester, I was enrolled in a class on travel writing taught by a wonderful Dutch professor who understood that while we might want to learn from her, our attention spans were limited by the ever sneaking possibility of new places. She used this to motivate us to write deeply about the experiences we had over our three or four-day weekends, forcing us to carry our notebooks everywhere to try to capture more than a cursory perspective on where we had been. Mine had a permanent home in a backpack that otherwise carried only the most basic necessities – change of underwear and tee shirt, an extra sweater, a passport, my Discman with a few CDs, and any printed instructions we could glean from what was a very different internet than the one I use to travel now. To this day, I still have that notebook and cherish it, as corny as some of the reflections are. I was clearly in a much more, shall we say dramatic frame of mind that I am today, but it still informs my decisions when it comes to planning new trips.

Since those early days of exploring, I’ve read a lot of amazing travelogues and memoirs from people far smarter and more adventurous than I am, but it’s rare to find a book like this one, written by a friend of a friend in Memphis, from the perspective of a newbie international traveller. Leibovich is a comedian, an attorney, and, I dare say, a historian (he at least retains a lot more data than I do about the art and architecture he saw on his first trip abroad) who is completely open about his own blunders in the pursuit of an expanded horizon. He makes some mistakes that to me, at first, seemed impossible in this day and age, but upon further reflection were not obviously avoidable without experience (although I maintain that trying to see three countries in one week is a goal only of the truly insane or clinically optimistic). In later chapters, I envied his ability to easily connect with people he meets on his travels, as I’ve always struggled to feel comfortable with strangers in my own language, much less in another.

The best thing though, was getting to read about his experiences visiting places I already love (the British Museum, the Louvre, a little restaurant that makes unbelievable soufflés). I found myself daydreaming of my own adventures and remembering both the transcendent and the frustrating aspects of succumbing to the travel bug. My mother and I sadly don’t get to travel much together these days, but reading this reminded me of what a gift she gave me by instilling the value of what the wide world had to offer me when I was young and eager to accept it.

My Bread, Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste

Before you judge me for talking about a cookbook this week, I should tell you that I once considered cookbooks to be below my notice too. I’m not much of a chef, although over the last few years, I have challenged myself to explore new recipes and perfect certain techniques (barbecuing vegetables, for example, or making dairy heavy meals lactose-intolerant friendly). I’ve learned to make my own granola, fish tacos, vegetarian chili – all recipes taught to me by dear friends that are in beloved rotation in our house now. Basically, I reached the point in my life where eating out every night had lost its appeal, and the idea of eating pasta, oatmeal or quesadillas in a steady stream for eternity was no longer tempting either (although I will say, I made a dessert quesadilla with peanut butter, slices of banana and a sprinkling of chocolate chips that I ate happily every night for two weeks, so it’s clearly not impossible for me to bow to routine).

Even though I’ve been pushing myself to cook at least four or five nights a week for awhile now, I still find it difficult to utilize cookbooks, which is a shame because I have received a stunning collection over the years (Moosewood, Smitten Kitchen, Rose’s Cakes…). Perhaps it’s because I didn’t grow up in a house where cooking was a favorite job. My mother did it because she loved us, not because she loved the activity itself, and I’m grateful to her for all those years of putting healthy meals on the table for us. Her mother had been even less interested in the kitchen than she was, and it’s my understanding that they mostly survived quite contentedly on soup and sandwiches, a fact that no doubt stunned my paternal grandmother, an Italian whiz in the kitchen.

My own Italian heritage did not come with a burning desire to prove myself over a hot stove, although I did inherit from my mother a love of all things sweet, and ever since I was small, I’ve happily baked cookies and cakes for neighbors and friends. These foods, while delicious and soul-filling, are not exactly a part of the food pyramid. On the other hand, my desert island food (that is, the one type of food I would be content to eat on a desert island should I be stranded there indefinitely) is bread, a staple that exists in some form in just about every culture. In the US, it’s also quite expensive, and often times filled with garbage ingredients to preserve flavor and freshness indefinitely. While I do occasionally buy a loaf, I’m rarely satisfied with it and have long dreamed of learning to make my own.

The problem is, bread is hard. Well, it’s not hard so much as it is time consuming. All that waiting and kneading and rising, and even when I followed every step, it never turned out quite right. My friends could bake beautiful braided challahs and hot crusty rolls, and my own contribution was dense and flavorless. After a while, I decided to start researching to figure out where I was going wrong, and I came across an article by Lahey, and I was immediately taken with him and his ideas about bread. About a year later, I asked for his book for Christmas, and my in-laws obliged. I dove straight in after the holidays. I worked my way though the basic bread recipe, and when it was a complete and utter failure, I was, well, devastated. His recipes are no fail! How could I fail a no fail recipe? It made no sense. I gave up, deciding I just wasn’t cut out to bake bread.

A few months ago, I pulled out the book again, and this time, I actually sat down and read it, cover to cover. I didn’t get out the flour or the yeast. I simply sat with the book and absorbed the tales he wove about salt and the singing of a perfect loaf. It was poetry. It made me salivate, and more importantly, it gave me the courage to try again. Again, and again. I made loaves that required my patience because I trusted in the story Lahey told about his beloved bread. I left dough alone when it needed space, and I was gentle when it needed care, and every time, I turned out a perfect golden loaf. It felt like a miracle, but really, it was nothing more than buying into what Lahey spun for me. I allowed myself to be swept up in his unconventional story, and it was every bit as wonderful as the bread itself.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy, Alison Bechdel

I’ve gotten away with reading some lighthearted books this month, and honestly, when I picked up Fun Home (a Christmas gift from my husband), my brain only processed the comedy half of “tragicomedy.” I was having trouble sleeping, and this seemed like the perfect remedy. It’s a graphic novel (although the style is composed in such a way that even my brain can process it), it’s been on my reading list for a while, and I tend to think of Bechdel as a comedic online presence, although that’s not strictly an accurate description of her body of work.

Bechdel is a deeply intellectual woman who, for almost thirty years, has been writing about the frustrations, limitations, and ridiculous incongruities of womanhood and sexuality, and while she does approach these topics (and others, like her family, the focus of this memoir), with a healthy sense of humor, her observations are razor-sharp and often devastating. Her writing and illustrations don’t skirt the inconvenient or uncomfortable truths she has encountered. Instead, she leans into the moments of drama, drawn from her own life experience, without attempting to spare herself or save face.

Reading Fun Home, I often found myself trying to skim over the hardest sections on her behalf. I thought about what it must be like for her family to have their lives shared in such a raw way; while she is far from the first artist to mine her own history for this kind of material, as a reader, I struggle with the sacrifices that come with such a choice. I wanted to spare her the uncertainty, the missed opportunities for family acceptance, the terrible secrets that were kept from her until adulthood. As ridiculous as it is to crave such a thing – to believe that averting my eyes from her confessions would ease some of the pain she’s had to endure – her presence as a writer draws out the most empathetic parts of me. Her vulnerability is truly a remarkable strength.

Her openness too though is a source of power. Society leans toward secrecy, toward hiding the less desirable parts of ourselves, but there is an incredible freedom in accepting the flaws and challenges that come from being human. Shaming those parts, or even politely declining to acknowledge them, is a misplaced attempt at perfection and uniformity. It brings no joy to deny the unique journey every person is on; in fact, it eats at the heart of the kind of power that brings a book like this to life. Really, it destroys the power that brings any number of books to life.

As readers, we crave authenticity, whether it be in memoir or in fiction, in three lines of poetry or in a thousand page fantasy. The human experience as viewed through a million imperfect lens is what fills library shelves and brings us closer to each other while feeding our enthusiasm and understanding of the wider world. A book like Fun Home, which blends the visually light style of a graphic novel with the emotionally challenging landscape of Bechdel’s youth is just one more lens we can peer through, accepting, hopefully, both the hard truth and her compassion on the other side.

 

For more about Alison Bechdel, go here.

C’mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark, Ryan Knighton

I have been wanting to read Ryan Knighton’s memoir about his first year of parenting as a blind man since I heard an interview with him on NPR in 2010. Unfortunately, the book proved hard to find here in the States, and when I put it on my Christmas list this year, I didn’t have high hopes. Consequently, I was amazed and thrilled when my in-laws were able to find it for me, and it ended up in my stack of must-reads for this January.

Admittedly, my memory of the book was limited to its topic, and to the compelling section read on This American Life – a passage about Ryan and his infant daughter, alone in a college campus parking lot early one morning in the moments after the girl utters one of the few words she knows (and that her father knows she knows). That word was bear. Very little could sum up the hysteria and helplessness that plagued much of Knighton’s first year better than that scene, and it stayed with me over the last four years.

His storytelling was in equal parts hilarious and frightening, and when I finally got a chance to read about the rest of his experience, I also found it heart-wrenching. In fact, I cried at least once every chapter. I also cried when I finished the book, and when I considered how many obstacles face parents with disabilities. It’s hard to admit, but I’d never given it much thought before. As a teacher, my mind has always focused on the experience from the child’s perspective – how the child, and his or her abilities, fit into the classroom, the wider family unit, and the world at large. It had never occurred to me just how frustrating and frightening it would be to perform simple tasks with a baby without sight, mobility, hearing. While I have been trained, over many years, to recognize the signs of abuse or neglect, of emotional instability in parent or child, of the challenges that exist for a child with special needs, I haven’t given enough thought to how a condition, such as Knighton’s degenerative blindness, would strain a couple and their new child.

Blindness has taught me to move through space exclusively by memory, even in my own home. Rats navigate this way too. Their movements are patterned, and the patterns are remembered by their muscles, not their minds. If a rat runs along the edge of a particular wall on a feeding route, and that wall is removed, the rat will continue to run along the phantom edge. Rats map the ghosts of bygone buildings. I move likewise through my home, habituated to its different turns and timing. That’s why, if I move too fast, or lose track of my angle, I can actually become disoriented in my own home. I live in a habit, not a space.

This is why, as I bolted through the doorway carrying Tess and her soother, I clipped the threshold with my arm. And with Tess’ little head. The sound was like the strike of a hammer on wood.

At that moment, I was introduced to her pain cry, which I thought I knew, but had actually never been heard before. It may have been her first pain from without. She was inconsolable. Me, too.

The ember in my skull felt at its brightest, and the most searing, and suddenly I saw the fear for what it was. Tess, whom I couldn’t soothe, represented the greatest pain I would ever know, should something happen to her, and worse, should I be to blame. Parents endure a constant, low-grade anxiety, it’s true, but the love that fills us is made of equal parts terror. I wasn’t afraid of Tess, but afraid of my love for her. It could, and will, hurt me one day, and so I’d stood back from it, so wary, so taken by self-preservation. I was in awe of this love. I was also ashamed of how I’d received it.

“I’m so sorry, Papa’s so sorry,” I pleaded as we sat on the couch.

Of course Tess couldn’t tell me she was okay, nor could she forgive me. My own pain cycled through my body, as did hers, unable to find an exit. A sadness clung. I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d hurt her. Didn’t matter that it was an accident – I was the cause. My blindness had shown the smallest example of what it could do to her, and to me as a father.

Knighton, as a man and a father, is not any better or worse than the average first time dad. The difference, though, is how hard he has to work for it. Every task he takes on is more fraught. Every task he can’t do is a greater burden on his wife. He is caught constantly in that struggle, twitching between independence and fear, ability and its natural limitations. His struggles and successes are familiar ones, but they’re painted with a new brush here.

 

For more about Ryan Knighton, head over here.

Letters from the Way: A Walking Journey Arles, France to La Reina, Spain, Barbara V Anderson

It’s been a while since I’ve come across a book that perfectly filled a spot in my soul that I didn’t even know I needed filled until I read it. I was at a Christmas faire at the beginning of November selling books with my friend Steve. He had just received his copy of Letters (he had contributed a piece to the conclusion), and I was marveling at the beautiful job Anderson’s publisher had done with the book’s endpapers (I might have been drooling over them, in fact). The whole book is peppered with Anderson’s incredible photography of France and Spain, but those endpapers…I was smitten. I absolutely had to read the book. It was too lovely to pass up.

Sometimes beautiful books disappoint. So much work goes into the design, but the content doesn’t live up to the reader’s overly high expectations. Not the case here. No. I planned to savor Anderson’s book, a collection of letters she wrote home to friends during her unconventional pilgrimage. It seemed like too dense a topic to burn through, but once I began, I couldn’t stop. I found myself desperate to be transported to the wet cold forests of France, to the hot rocky roads of Spain, to the lush mountain sides, and even to the awkward, perfect, exhausting dinners with strangers (dinners I couldn’t even eat, I should mention, given that I’m lactose intolerant and cannot have red meat or pork!). Her “long walks,” as she thinks of them, are far from perfect. Bad weather, obnoxious walking buddies (for miles and miles and miles), excruciating injuries – she’s plagued with all of them – yet my desire to join her adventure never faltered.

She was searching, in part, for some proof that God exists. Most pilgrims believe in a higher power before they set out; Anderson does not. My impression was of a sensibility both artistic and scientific in nature – something along the lines of Da Vinci or Tim Jenison (if you haven’t watched Tim’s Vermeer, you’re missing out) – a desire to seek and believe in extraordinary things from a mind firmly rooted in tangible reality. At the same time, her appeal is largely in how relatable she is in these letters written from the road She is an ordinary woman pursuing something exceptional.

The result is a book I cherished. I took it with me all day, reading it in the car in the parking lot of a friend’s apartment, then while waiting to pick up my dry-cleaning. I reread some of the letters later in the week and only grudgingly returned Steve’s copy to him after I’d kept it three weeks longer than promised. Reading about Anderson’s journey was a perfect escape from Christmas shopping, from the return of an ant infestation, from the daunting list of things that must be done before we leave for an early and extended trip for the holidays. Hers was Europe the way I imagined it when I was small – the slow-paced day, the café au lait at dawn and the wine at night, and the people both strange and civilized. Her world, for those weeks, was one I had imagined well before and was delighted to see, for a moment, come to life.

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris

The biggest problem with going on a three-week vacation in October is that when November rolls around, and I’m once again buried in pre-holiday deadlines and extra NaNoWriMo word count, I don’t feel like I can phone it in. If you look in the archives, November is traditionally my laziest month of reviews because it’s hard to hack a thousand words about someone else’s book when my own projects are keeping me up late every night! And then waking me early! When it’s still dark! It’s almost like the writer in me doesn’t realize that hibernation has officially started…

But here’s the thing – there’s a solution to what I’ve started calling the “November is hell” problem. And that solution is audiobooks. Yes. Audiobooks. Usually the bane of my existence (I have almost zero ability to concentrate auditorily), this month, the audiobook is my saving grace. I can listen while cooking dinner (or cleaning up the kitchen from a week’s worth of dinners). I can have it on while I’m in the shower or running errands or waiting to pick my husband up after work. As an added bonus, I can listen to NPH at double speed and get through his jokes in almost half the time! Seven hour book listened to in four? Win!

I suspect it wouldn’t be easy for me to pull this off with a novel, which is why I almost never listen to them, instead choosing memoirs or biographies that don’t require following a complex plot. Nothing slows down a speed read listen like having to constantly rewind to catch up on what transpired while I was multitasking. I’ve found this is especially effective when listening to books written and read by comedians, like Harris (or Fey or Kaling). I’m so used to the rhythm of his speech from years of watching How I Met Your Mother and Doogie Howser, MD that it’s more like a one-sided conversation with an old friend than a book.

It was surprising too, when I told friends I was reading it, that when they inevitably asked whether it was hilarious, I had to stop and say…well, yes. Sort of. But also, no. Which they then took to mean he didn’t successfully execute his jokes, but which actually meant that his story is set up less for laughs than it could have been. Instead, he’s sincere, and sweet, and somehow both self-deprecating and vain. Harris is witty, but also surprisingly vulnerable.

It’s possible it’s just a side effect of listening to a person’s life story told in their own voice, but it’s hard not to root for Harris, to celebrate the birth of his children with him, and to recoil in anger at the discrimination he’s experienced. The format has an empathetic effect on its listener. The fourth wall comes down, and for a few busy hours, it’s possible to be a part of his world.

 

For more about Neil Patrick Harris, head here.

Hurricane Story, Jennifer Shaw

On Sunday night, we got home from a three-week trip halfway across the country and back. In twenty days, we visited twelve states and drove over 6,000 miles. We visited roughly twenty-four friends (ten families), stayed in five hotels, one airbnb apartment, and in some of the most pillow-filled guest rooms imaginable (especially amusing since we packed our own beloved pillows and slept on them happily every night). We woke up at 4am in Albuquerque to see the first exquisitely peaceful dawn patrol of the city’s famous hot air balloon fiesta. We stayed out way too late in smoky jazz clubs in New Orleans. We played board games with my husband’s best friends from college, and watched his team win their homecoming game in the rain. I have a tiny clay “puppy” given to me the very first night of the trip by a new young friend, carefully protected from the ravages of the road with toilet paper wrappings, and I have beautiful autumnal pictures of Temple Square in Salt Lake City (mere blocks from where we had afternoon beers with friends who used to live down the street from us). We stargazed in Arches National Park and had catfish and green chiles and grits until all we wanted was something green. It was a wonderful trip. Exhausting and ridiculous in its scope, but still precious.

And because we were driving, I was able to justify buying a few books to add to my collection, although admittedly I forgot about most of them as they were lost under the detritus of car travel. This one though, this little volume of photographs, I’ve been carrying with me since New Orleans. My husband found Hurricane Story when we went to an after hours event at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We’d spent two hours wandering around the museum, mostly exploring the Gasperi Collection (self-taught, outsider and visionary art) while half-listening to the band that had been booked in the lobby (extremely loud punk-jazz…is that a thing? It’s what they sounded like). It was our last night in the city, and we’d spent the past few days digging into the history of the region (an absolutely fascinating part of the country I had known virtually nothing about).

I suspect that’s why I was so taken by Shaw’s story. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I remember the overwhelming imagery of a ravaged city, but I had neither been there, nor knew anyone living in the area, and it felt very removed from my life. I had no frame of reference for what was being lost, or even (despite the hours of news I watched) how it could be happening. Levies and wards were words that meant almost nothing to me. It wasn’t until I was walking the city, listening to people who had lived there for years, and exploring it for myself that I truly appreciated both the devastation and the resiliency of the community.

New Orleans is a fascinating mix of uninhibited exuberance and solemn tradition. The beads and the drinks and the food are shiny paper on a city that deserves to be unwrapped and appreciated more deeply for its political and cultural history. It wasn’t my favorite stop of the trip, but it is where I learned the most, and thought most deeply about many troubling aspects of our nation’s past and present. Shaw’s book added another dimension to my perspective of the city. I finally got to read about the hurricane nine years ago through the eyes of an artist, rather than a reporter.

 

For more about Jennifer Shaw, go here.

You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, Julie Klam

I’ve really never considered myself a pet person. I think my parents would laugh, then shudder, to hear that because my brother and I banded together on very little as children, but one of those things was the acquisition of pets. My parents were powerless against the combination of our good behavior and camaraderie, and we always won. A pair of gerbils born after the pets in my third grade class turned out to be male and female instead of two males? Two of the meanest, most bitey rescue rabbits imaginable? A whole flock of finches saved from a college dorm? A turtle found on the side of the road during an early morning dog walk? Oh, and dogs? Of course we had dogs.

My earliest memory is actually the acquisition of the first dog my brother and I owned. He was a mutt fox terrier we got from the pound when I was three, and although I don’t know whether he came with the name Spot or I gave it to him (he was white with brown spots – I never claimed to be a genius of subtlety), I remember standing in the parking lot while my brother received enthusiastic doggy kisses.

That memory might as well have substituted itself for Spot’s entire life. I lived with him, but his love and adoration were saved exclusively for my brother and mother. He was a good dog, but he was, to me, like a roommate I never got to know very well. When he died (at quite an advanced age), I called my best friend up and found out the cat they’d had since she was tiny had died on the same day. That cat had been ornery and mean, and had loved my friend’s older sister to the exclusion of all others, but we were both still sad.

A few months later, we rescued another dog, an Airedale terrier mutt, who had been saved from an abusive home where she’d been chained beneath a porch, cut across the head with a knife, and taught to bark ferociously at men in uniform. She’d had a whole litter of puppies under there too, and even though she was big and sort of ugly (we affectionately called her Frankenstein for many years), she was a love.

By the time we got Shady Lady, my brother had left for college, and I was able to win her affection more readily. She would occasionally sleep on my bed, although the slightest noise would send her careening downstairs barking. I left to go off to school a year later though, and she became very much bonded to my parents, and then, of course, my brother, when he moved back to town. When she passed away in 2010, my parents decided to wait until after my wedding to get another dog. They didn’t want to be traveling too much while helping the new dog adjust. It was a tough year for them, and it was the first time I clearly understood that I was not a pet person. It was unbearable of my parents to live without a dog. When they rescued Willie (the beagle) in 2011, it was like a light came back on in their lives. Even though his nickname quickly evolved into Wily Willie (Google “beagles stealing food” to have some idea of what my parents willingly go through for this animal), they adore him.

That same year, I was out for a run and I came across a dog running loose in my neighborhood. It didn’t have a tag or a collar, and I had no cell phone to call for assistance. I stopped only because he seemed to think my running was a game and kept sprinting into the street – an act that earned me dirty looks from passers-by. After about fifteen minutes, a man walking his dog came by and reprimanded me for not keeping my dog on a leash. I explained to him, almost in tears, that he wasn’t my dog, that he snapped at me when I tried to get close, and that I really didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, he lived across the street and was able to get the dog into his backyard and took over all responsibilities from there.

When I called my brother, he immediately asked me why I didn’t just make a lead out of my belt. I explained to him that sweatpants don’t generally have belts, and he proceeded to give me a lecture on all the ways I could have helped that dog. My brother doesn’t understand; he’s the dog whisperer and has, on many occasions, jumped out of his car into traffic to rescue animals. He will then spend hours caring for them while searching for their owners.

I, on the other hand, barely notice that animals exist. I like them, sure, but I don’t feel that deep bond. That was part of the reason I wanted to read Klam’s memoir. I thought it might give me perspective. I wanted to better understand the pet people I came from, and she is very much like them. She’s a wonderful writer, funny and poignant, and I’ll admit I cried through about a quarter of the book. When it was finished though, I felt, if anything, more alienated from my family. Pet people are a certain kind of wonderful. They’re crazy, but it’s a warm, fuzzy crazy. Reading about it made me feel a little monstrous. How could I be so indifferent? And yet…I am. Sure, I’ll take a doggy cuddle now and then, and yes, my husband is trying to convince me that we need to adopt a cat, but honestly, if I never had another pet, it would be fine. Good, in fact, considering that my father took responsibility for just about all the pets I ever begged for (aside from the dogs, who are members of the family).

But you know, if you’re not heartless, this book is great. As for me, I’m sending my copy east to be appreciated by people far better than I later today…

For more about Julie Klam, head here.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More, Janet Mock

“They were all staring at me, like they expected something from me, you know?” I said. “It just made me uncomfortable.”

“Mary! Life is uncomfortable,” Wendi said, rolling her eyes as she remained focused on the dark streets ahead of us. “You have to get used to it or you’re going to live your life trying to make people comfortable. I don’t care what people say about me because they don’t have to live as me. You gotta own who you are and keep it moving.” (p. 117)

The first time I realized that my defining characteristic was being a social chameleon, I was in the second grade. We were lining up on the playground, girls on one end of the yard and boys on the other, and I asked my best friend at the time if we were going to be partners for our field trip. She was angry with me for some transgression I no longer remember, and she told me that she didn’t want to have anything to do with me – not because of whatever it was I’d done, but because instead of standing up for myself, I’d sold myself out and lied to try to regain her favor.

Decades later, the bitterness of that truth remains with me – that as a child, I cared more about blending in and avoiding uncomfortable confrontation than I did about doing the right thing. I suspect it still stings because I have so many more memories to back up that first one. I’ve never felt secure wielding my own perspective like a blade against the opposition. Instead, I extend the best and messiest parts of myself only to the people who know me best and remain an easygoing, adaptable stand-in to acquaintances and colleagues. When I read a book like this though, the way I choose to live fills me with a sense of shame and regret. Mock’s acceptance of her own truth in the face of cultural strictures and intolerance reminds me of what an easy life I’ve had, of how fortunate I am to make choices every day that deny some parts of myself while retaining the privilege of being viewed by others the way I want to be.

I compartmentalize because it’s easier to deny certain aspects of my life than it is to explain them at the risk of censure and confrontation. The woman Mock was at thirteen, struggling against insane odds and yet proud and certain of who she needed to be, serves as a reminder of my own laziness of self. I was in college before I felt I needed to take time to examine who I was or what I needed to do to become the person I want to be, and even to this day, I only speak up for myself or for those who need an ally about half the time. This is not an easy thing for me to admit. That failure to use my voice to fight for compassionate acceptance of all people is a flaw that I consider to be unforgivable. I very deeply root myself in the belief that to say nothing is not only to tacitly accept violence and cruelty as acceptable, but to be complicit in their propagation.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that the idea that affected me most deeply when I was reading this book was the unflappable love that surrounded Mock on her journey. Her family was not perfect. They weren’t always able to give her everything she needed, but the message she received over and over, regardless of circumstances, was that she was loved. It’s an idea I cling to when I fail to be proudly myself – that I don’t have to meet the expectations of anyone, even myself, to be deserving of that kind of love.

As I look back , what impresses me about my family is their openness. They patiently let me lead the way and kept any confusion or worry to themselves during a fragile period in my self-discovery. I recognize this as one of the biggest gifts they gave me. On some level, I knew they were afraid for me, afraid that I would be teased and taunted. Instead of trying to change me, they gave me love, letting me know that I was accepted. I could stop pretending and drop the mask. My family fortified my self-esteem, which I counted on as I embarked on openly expressing my rapidly evolving self. (pp. 108-109)

 

For more about Janet Mock, go here.

Young House Love, Sherry and John Petersik

Am I the only person who gets hit by an intense wave of pride after replacing an old toilet seat with a brand new one? Or after putting up shelves in the garage that require several iterations of measuring, drilling, and stud finding? Or planting tomatoes and keeping them alive long enough for them to actually provide me with fruit?

I  can’t be the only one who sometimes stares at home improvements months after they’ve been completed with a disproportionate sense of satisfaction at what I’ve accomplished. If I am, well then, you’re not doing right. Or possibly you are so used to doing it right that it’s lost its magic. Maybe you picked up a hammer as a child and you’ve been wielding it Thor-style ever since. You probably look at homes that need a little TLC and think, yup. I can do that. I can take that run-down pile of junk and turn it into something unique and wonderful.

That’s not me. It never has been. I didn’t grow up in a house with handy folk (apologies to my parents, who are wonderful people, and talented in many other ways, but it’s true). After my grandfather passed away, my brother was the only one of us with innate mechanical skills, and we’ve always turned to him when we need something repaired. The thing is, he lives three thousand miles away, and even if he didn’t, I’m as capable as the next guy (seriously – you should see those shelves I put up!), and with a little bit of research and a lot of patience, I’ve taught myself a lot about home and garden improvements over the last few years.

Of course, it helps that my husband knows about things like turning off the power at the source before beginning an electrical repair and measuring twice (yes, twice!) so we only have to cut once. His dad was apparently more hands-on when it came to tackling home repairs, and he has benefitted from those early years of experience. When it comes down to it though, most of the projects we take on are totally out of our wheelhouse. Typically what happens is that one of us will be struck by an idea, and after a few week of casual discussion, we’ll jump in. (“Let’s just try it!” is basically my mantra when it comes to all things home related, followed closely by “What’s the worst that could happen?” Let me tell you, I’ve changed my tune about that one after almost losing my left eye while trying to cut dead branches off our tree without safety goggles on.)

I probably should let inspiration guide me a little less than planning and research, but that’s one of the great things about Young House Love. The projects discussed by Sherry and John Petersik are cheap,  straightforward, and satisfying (like a big bowl of spaghetti without the carb coma). When I’m in need of a simple pick-me-up project for an afternoon, I can flip through and get inspired, and when we’re  about to tackle something bigger, I can check both the book and their blog for help. Their instructions are easy to understand (and include plenty of pictures), and as a family, they approach these tasks with a sense of humor and enjoyment I find refreshing.

Summer is here, and with it, my desire to clean up, reorganize, and tackle projects I’d been putting off in colder weather. With hours more of sunlight to work with, even week nights are becoming project friendly, and with the Petersiks behind me, I’m ready to break out the tools and go to town on our house! After I buy some safety goggles. Very important, those. Not the same thing as sunglasses, by the by…

 

For great project ideas, check out Young House Love at its source.

Chi Running, Danny Dreyer and Katherine Dreyer

Last week, I promised you running. I said I would write about it regardless of how my race went, and I suppose it was good I made that promise because otherwise I would try to pretend the race never happened. The disappointment of it would continue to eat away at me, and all of my workouts for the foreseeable future would be tinged with the overwhelming feeling of failure I had when I crossed the finish line on Monday. Maybe they still will be – I don’t know. But I’m hoping there will be some release in sharing the experience, that a few of you have similar stories and will know exactly how I feel, and that we can turn over a new leaf together.

Because, you see, after five months of training – five months that countless people made fun of me for needing (“Who needs to train that hard for a 10k?” is a phrase I could have tattooed on my arm at this point) – I bonked. Hard. But let me back up. Let me paint a picture of the week before the race. I got to Colorado last Tuesday, partly so I could help my sister-in-law get ready for her wedding and partly to adjust to the altitude for the Bolder Boulder. On Wednesday, we ran errands most of the day and then watched our beloved Rockies lose from the seventh row behind home plate while tornadoes and thunderstorms rocked the surrounding area. Thursday was a blur of bachlorette-related activities and Friday was spent tying hundreds of bows out of ribbon that all needed to look just so, followed by the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner (and again with the crazy weather! Who knew tornadoes came so far west? Not me, clearly.) On Saturday, I was on my feet from 6am until 2am. It was an incredible day, but when I had to get up at 8:30 on Sunday morning, I felt like I had been hit by a truck, and possibly one of those tornadoes. Over the course of those days, I also had to take an emergency Benadryl twice because lavender had found its way into my food (once in the form of a tea-infused salad dressing and once in honey), and by Sunday night, my stomach was so angry with me, I couldn’t sleep at all.

The funny thing was, I wasn’t even nervous about the race – not even at three o’clock on Monday morning when I was laying on my side trying to massage my belly into submission. I’d had plenty of tough training runs, days where I felt even worse – I’d still been able to push through and finish close to the time I wanted to. So when I still couldn’t stomach any food on Monday morning at seven, I wasn’t really worried. I had a Powergel with me, and a water bottle filled with Gatorade. I was going to be surrounded by happy runners; surely the adrenaline would carry me through.

If you’re shaking your head at me right now, you’re right. I’m wrong. Adrenaline is not enough to counteract a week of five or less hours of sleep a night and two straight days of barely eating. By mile two, I had given up hope that my legs would lose that leaden feeling, and by mile four when I finally saw my in-laws (the first people, out of fifty thousand, that I had recognized on the course), it was all I could do not to cry. At no point did the joy or energy around me have any effect on my run other than to make me feel utterly alone. By the time I pushed myself over the finish line fifteen minutes later than the slowest time I had expected, I had to force myself to swallow vomit. I spent the next half hour slowly making my way through a crushing number of enthusiastic racers with only one goal – find some quick sugar to restore some semblance of normality to me body. The Pepsi I finally found was warm and flat, but it helped. I was able to hold it together for another few hours while the rest of the racers in the wedding party gathered to celebrate Memorial Day in the stands.

It wasn’t until later, after my much-needed shower, when I was finally alone, that the bitter disappointment overwhelmed me. Five months of training. Five months of visualizing an exciting PR. Five months of talking to people about the race, people who expected me to do well, and to have a good time, who I had to smile blandly at because it hurt to admit just how sad I was. The people I did tell were supportive, of course. They reminded me that it wasn’t my fault, and that my training actually did kick in since I was able to draw on it in terrible circumstances in order to make it over the finish line. I appreciated that the people who love me could say that (and mean it), and probably in a few weeks, I’ll even believe them. I don’t right now, of course. Right now, I just have to grit my teeth and get back out there because I know running makes me happy most days.

That’s where Chi Running comes in. I started reading it a few weeks ago, and even though I haven’t finished it yet, I know it’s going to be the key to reinventing myself as a runner. It’s the lifeline I’m holding onto – that belief, held above all others, in the child-like joy of running. I need that right now. I need that reminder that beyond bad days and heart-breaking races, running is still my happy place. It’s still something I can do that defies the way I imagined myself as a kid and inspires me to persevere in other parts of my life. When I have a good run, it reminds me that I can do anything, really, because running is hard for me. Running is, some days, impossible for me in fact, and yet I still do it. I have failed so many times, and yet here I am, just a few days past failing big, and I want to pick myself up and start again. That is the best version of me, the version running has created.

I love the promise this book offers me. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t been overly injury prone as a runner, but it’s certainly not effortless exercise, and if the Dreyers can offer me insight into running in a more holistic, body-affirming way, I’m all for it. It won’t shield me from the disappointment that inevitably goes hand in hand with a bad race day, but with any luck, it will assuage my limping spirit.

 

For more about Danny and Katherine Dreyer, go here.

Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too, Shauna James Ahern

On Monday night, I was up until 2:30am with a stomach crisis. I’m the worst when it comes to self-diagnosing via the internet (oh how I regret the day Web MD debuted!), and since my husband was visiting his family in Colorado, I had no one to stop me from looking up every possible cause of my distress. By midnight, I had narrowed it down to either food poisoning from an unknown source or a reaction to drinking a banana and mango smoothie I’d made for dinner. Before I began Googling, I didn’t know that both of those foods can have an adverse effect on a  person with a latex allergy (which I happen to have), and I’ve eaten both many times before, although never together.

Of course, I have no real way of knowing what caused my stomachache, but I’m used to that. For close to twenty years, I had an undiagnosed intolerance to lactose, and since I happily drank milk with dinner every night, I had terrible pain just about every day. Looking back, our best estimate is that I developed the problem at three or four when I went from being an enthusiastic eater to one of the pickiest people ever. I was too young to be able to explain to my parents the deep-seated fear I was developing of food, and so many children go through fussy eating phases that, while concerned with the change, neither my doctor nor parents realized the extent of the problem. (Now, of course, I suspect I would have been diagnosed in under six months, but it was a different time.)

By the time I was seven years old, I was so good at hiding my stomach problems that I had everyone convinced I was just a difficult eater. The truth is, so much of my energy was focused on pretending I was fine that it never occurred to me to consider another solution. I thought, much like Shauna James Ahern, that I was just a low-energy, sickly sort of person. I didn’t see food as fuel, as pleasure, as anything but a necessity I approached three times a day with dread.

When I discovered the truth at twenty, it was both a relief and heartbreaking. Most of my favorite foods were full of dairy, and it was too much for a college kid to give up all of them at once. I was, at best, half-assed about my approach to eating better until 2008 when I was invited on a three-week rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. There was no question in my mind that I couldn’t consume dairy on the river; it was already an experience far outside of my comfort zone and I didn’t want to risk being crippled by cramps.

I can’t even describe how life changing the experience was, on many levels; the one that sticks with me most though is how different my body felt.  For the first time, maybe ever, my body was completely free of the thing that was hurting it the most, and food tasted so much better when I didn’t spend the hours after eating curled up in agony. I felt like a super hero those first few weeks, like I’d been gifted with powers I could never have dreamed of.

Since then, I’ve learned to feed myself the way my body needs to be fed. Sometimes I still find myself apologizing for inconveniencing people when I’m visiting, but I know it’s worth it. I think that was part of the reason I was so upset on Monday. I knew everything I’d eaten that day was good for me, and yet I felt just as awful as I did when I was a kid. I couldn’t sleep, so I pulled out my Kindle and looked for a book that might relax me. I’d purchased Gluten-Free Girl a few years ago and only gotten around to reading the first few chapters. I dove back into it, a new-found kinship blossoming with this woman I’d never met. Yes, I thought, clutching a useless hot water bottle to my belly. She gets it.

Admittedly, I had to skip over the recipes she shares because my body was not interested in considering any combination of ingredients in that moment, but I’ve gone back and bookmarked most of them to try now that I’m feeling better. I may not be gluten-free, but I see the benefit of a diet low in wheat and high in delicious local ingredients. More than a collection of recipes though, she shares her journey of not only adjusting her diet to accommodate celiac’s disease, but of learning to rejoice in food. Her excitement is contagious.

 

For more about Shauna James Ahern, head over here. Seriously, you won’t regret it. Fair warning though: I just lost an hour perusing recipes when I should have been working…

Writing the Cozy Mystery, Nancy J Cohen

Tomorrow, I’m flying to San Diego to host a bridal shower for my sister-in-law. Consequently, this week has been spilt between keeping up my word count for Camp NaNo, editing November’s NaNo novel, and double-checking that all the details for the party are in order. I’m not the best party planner, and it turns out, it’s much harder to organize an event I have to fly to. I’ve been leaning heavily on the advice of the friend who planned my shower years ago; she seems to do such things effortlessly, and with her help, I’m only minimally freaked out about playing host to twenty women I don’t know (and one who I very much want to feel pampered for a day).

Between word sprints and remembering to pack ribbon for decorating favors, I really haven’t had much time for reading. Fortunately, Cohen’s guide, which I’ve had in my queue since February, is a blessedly brief book. (Of course, I highlighted about forty percent of it, since my mother and I are teaming up to write a mystery this summer, which essentially guarantees I’ll have to reread practically the whole thing when I move into productivity for that project…)

I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, and part of me felt silly reading a book like this, but I’m also the kind of person who thrives on directions. I love guidelines, and prompts, and advice about how to set up pre-book-writing data. Cohen’s book was perfect for this. She’s concise, informative, and has years of experience in the genre to back up her suggestions. It was written to target writers new to both the genre and to fiction in general, but I didn’t feel condescended to; instead, it was like having a cup of tea with someone who has already gone on a vacation I’m planning to take. Sure, I can imagine my packing list, the best hikes, and where to eat while I’m there, but it’s still nice to pick the brain of someone who’s made the trip already.

Happily, it will serve as an excellent planner for our venture into unknown territory. My mother and I have actually written a few novels together, but we never do much plotting in advance. Instead, we’ve always treated it as almost a surprise – one person writes a chapter and sends it along, then the next person adds one, and so on – eventually, we meander into the meat of the story and resolve all of the loose ends we’ve littered along the way. It’s a surprisingly fun way to write, but not necessarily the best tactic for a mystery. I suspect a little planning beforehand will save us a lot of headaches later, and even after this initial reading of Cohen’s book, we’ve already created a joint Google doc and started filling it with ideas (and let’s be honest – I also took my twenty percent discount from NaNo and finally purchased Scrivener because an org nerd like me should not be without such a program any longer).

Now, if only I could have been as satisfied with the resources I found for planning that shower…

 

For more about Nancy Cohen, go here.

The Way of the Happy Woman: Living the Best Year of Your Life, Sara Avant Stover

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.

Young Widower: A Memoir, John W Evans

I first heard about Katie Evans’ death in a nail salon. It was a Wednesday morning in November. I know this because my friend’s children are both at preschool on Wednesdays, and every few months, we  treat ourselves to the early bird special at Capri Spa. We’d been talking about Halloween, and about how last year her sons, who I have known since birth, knocked so timidly on the door. On a normal day, they would have bounded into our house and immediately climbed the stairs to compare how similar, and different, our mirror-image homes were.

On Halloween though, they hid behind their mother, and their father took pictures of them shyly accepting the gluten-free candy I had specifically picked to meet their family’s needs. This year though, they brought friends. They knocked loudly, and before I’d even reached the door, they were already shouting their trick-or-treats. They were firemen, bold and laughing and hungry. The boys’ grandparents stood by, and the father of their friends helped his youngest tuck a Fun size bag of M&Ms into a plastic jack-o-lantern.

I’d never met their little friends before, not officially. During the summer, I’d talked to the four of them while standing on a bench looking over the fence into their yard. I would keep an eye on the grill while they held up boats and trucks, and tried to make their splashes in the water table reach me.  Halloween was the first time I’d actually met John Evans though, and in the rush of holiday excitement, it was a passing hello. I had the impression later that he was tall, and that his kids were cute, and knew that he and his wife lived only a few blocks away. My friend confirmed all this, and we laughed about how this year, I’d forgotten to buy any Halloween candy at all, so she’d snuck some to me while the boys were distracted.

Then we went back to reading our magazines, and a few minutes passed before she mentioned that John was a writer, and that he had a book coming out in the winter. I suspect my response was non-committal.  People often talk to me about their writer friends. Some of them are published and some aren’t. Occasionally, I’ll read a friend’s, or a friend of a friend’s work; it depends on the book, the availability, my schedule. She mentioned that he was a poet, but that this new book was a memoir. “It’s about his wife,” she said, “and how she was killed by a bear in the Carpathian mountains.”

So there it was. Out in the open, this intimate detail about a man I only knew as “tall.” Fortunately, one of my friend’s great gifts is to project both sympathy and optimism in the same breath. There was nothing sordid or gossipy about her tone; his history was conveyed in a way I’ve come to think of as uniquely Utah. She was born and raised there, and although I’ve never been, I imagine it as a place where people wander around comfortably wearing their hearts on their sleeves, offering to all a blend of midwestern frankness and a more western laissez-faire attitude. Live and let live. I’m from New England though, and even after all these years on the left coast, I haven’t completely adjusted to such openness. I’m used to half-whispered conversations accompanied by guilt for letting slip anything tenuously labelled “private.”

Of course, this story isn’t private, in that he’s written a book detailing both the event itself and the first year of grief following it, but it felt that way, that first time I heard about it. The sun was shining, and we had coffee and issues of Real Simple and People on hand. The story felt somehow separate from the book, and when it came time to read it, my friend’s voice was often in the back of my mind. It was a comfort to have her there. This wasn’t just a stranger’s reflection about violent death and being widowed at thirty – that would be painful enough – no, this was a man I’d met, however briefly, who had witnessed and recovered (such that one can recover) from a terrible sadness. Whatever grief is his to carry, he has a family, and friends, and children whose names I’ve often heard mentioned with great affection.

When I opened the book for the first time, I wasn’t fully prepared for John’s eloquence or how the story would be magnified when related in his own words. I was with my husband in a doctor’s office. It was the day after my birthday, and he was waiting to have a sprained ankle looked at. We were very early for his appointment, because I have a hard time not being very early, and he loves me enough to go with it. Surrounded by strangers, I tried to cry discreetly. I tried to ignore the combination of raw, poetic story-telling, and my friend’s voice in my ear, Halloween, and my husband’s arm brushing mine. I didn’t want John’s story to seem at all familiar, because if it did, it would mean the anxieties that sometimes overwhelm me might not just be figments of an overactive imagination but potentialities.

In the weeks that followed, as I tried to absorb as best I could the grief and shame and regret and healing he had written about, I began to notice how many jokes people told about bears. Every off-handed comment had me on edge. Years removed from his initial grief, I found myself wondering if it had bothered him, if he’d found a way to accept such things the way I’ve seen survivors of fatal car crashes accept the sound of screeching tires. I found myself wanting to say something, to somehow put a stop to casual jests, but of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t, not without sounding like a lunatic.

Instead, I funneled all of my energy into the character I’ve been writing for Ten to One, a young widow whose closest friends have dangerous ties to Romania. What were the odds, I wondered, that things I’d barely considered before the past year – the death of a spouse, a country I’ve never visited – what was the likelihood they would appear here, in this book, written by a nice man from down the street? Maybe certain books cross our paths when we need them, or maybe it’s a coincidence. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that as I struggled to write fictitious death and survival so far removed from the reality of such circumstances, I read this one sentence over and over again:

In order to participate in the world, it must be tamed and made reasonable, and when it is not tame and reasonable, the world still requires participation. (p 77)

I copied that sentence at the top of every page so that as I was writing, and stripping things away, and trying to convince a paper girl to not just live in the face of death, but to re-engage with the world around her, I would remember that such a thing was not just possible but paramount. That the weeping and gnashing of teeth and pretending to be fine, the nostalgia and forgetting, the sleeping too much or not enough, with friends or alone – it was all at least partially true. Having a life after terrible loss was possible – as possible as disappearing under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or retreating from it all. The world still requires participation though, even when it cannot be tamed, and yet for those times when life is bitter and unreasonable, there are stories like John’s – books that accept the ugliness of both death and survival and remind us to be grateful and angry and preciously alive.

For more about John Evans, go here.