Books Read in March + April.

books read in march and april

“An American Marriage” a novel by Tayari Jones

There are two kinds of people in the word, those who leave home, and those who don’t.

This is Oprah’s latest book club selection, but it was on my radar long before that. I will read anything Tayari Jones writes. (And I keep waiting/hoping for her to write a book on the writing process.) 

It takes a lot these days to draw me into another world. I desperately need it, but it takes a lot of to pull me away from the constant drama that is our current reality. But this novel did just that. And I gratefully fell into it. Not only is it a beautiful, complex exploration of marriage but also of race in America. 

The chapters alternate points of view and are filled with letters between the two, letters that break your heart as you see their marriage steadily frayed by circumstances beyond their control.

As I neared the end, I did not know who or what I was rooting for. Jones did such a masterful job of keeping every character real and flawed. There was no bad guy or good guy. Just human beings with their messy,complicated hearts doing the best they knew how to do.

Without giving anything away, when I got to the end I closed the book and thought, “That is exactly how this story needed to end.” Not that it was expected or cliche. Far from it. It just felt inevitable and right.

A sentence I underlined:

“When she gives a song, it isn’t entertaining; rather, it sounds like she is telling secrets that are not hers to reveal.”

“Big Love- The Power of Living with a Wide-Open Heart” by Scott Stabile

I was fourteen when my parents were shot and killed in their Detroit fruit market.

The first sentence sets up this brave exploration of pain and how one traumatic event impacts a life. Stabile does not shy away from the tragedy that shaped his young life, nor the aspects of his personality that need to be healed. It is his utter honesty that ties the book together. You don’t walk away with a tidy list of things to do in order to love with a wide-open heart. Instead, you are invited to look at your own life, at the events that have shaped you, at how your are behaving now, today, in this moment and bring a wide-open hearted compassion to everyone involved.

A sentence I underlined:

It’s impossible to communicate with love and clarity when we’re filled with judgement.

“The Body is Not an Apology- The Poser of Radical Self-Love” by Sonya ReneeTaylor

Let me answer a couple of questions right away before you dig too deeply into this book and are left feeling bamboozled and hoodwinked.

This disclaimer was the perfect way to start this book. It is not the usual self-help book guiding you on a journey to body acceptance, body love. It is more of a call to arms. She is calling for a revolution on every level: in each individual body, in our relationships, our communities, our governments. In calling for radical self-love, Taylor is asking us to get real with ourselves, with our bodies, with the body shame we are immersed in, the body terrorism that haunts us. 

Don’t pick up this book if you are looking for a gentle voice, coaxing you to love your thighs or belly. 

Don’t pick this book up if you are looking for easy answers to the body shame you’ve been carrying for decades.

Do pick up this book if you want to wake up to all the ways we have been indoctrinated into body shame, all the ways we perpetuate body shame and oppression.

Do pick up this book if you want to be transformed on a deep, sacred, level.

Do pick up this book if you are ready to embody radical self-love.

A sentence I underlined:

Radical self-love demands that we see ourselves and others in the fullness of our complexities and intersections and that we work to create space for those intersections.

“Barbara the Slut and Other People” stories by Lauren Holmes

In Mexico City the customs light lit up green, which was lucky because I had fifty pairs of underwear with tags on them in my suitcase.

How could I not buy this book when that is the first sentence that greets me? And every story had that same kind of edgy first line that just drew me in. 

These stories are poignant yet laugh-out-loud funny at times. They explore the tangles of our emotional and physical lives as the characters navigate relationships with others and themselves.

A woman learns that she prefers the company of her dog to the foreign guy she was having a fling with who has somehow set up camp in her apartment. A woman who graduated law school decides to sell sex toys instead of practicing law.

Each story is fearless and precise. A voice to watch for sure. 

A sentence I underlined:

 My mom and I were going to stop to break up with my boyfriend on our way to Emerald Isle, but the muffler fell off my car right before we got to the exit we needed to take to Raleigh, and my mom said we couldn’t stop anymore. 

“Half Wild” stories by Robin Mac Arthur

“You want to jump in the creek?” my mother asks.

The title of this collection is perfect. Each story and the collection itself feels like they are half wild—the settings as well as the emotional terrain.

Each story seems to linger at the edge between the wilderness and populated areas, between the wild space of the hearts of the characters and the lives they are actually living.

So many sentences took my breath away. I longed to linger in the wilderness of each story. An amazing debut collection.

A paragraph I underlined:

What is it about fields? The way they make all directions viable. The way they give houses, porches, voices perspective. The way the word itself—fields—makes you capable of heading toward that porch with its smoke and laughter, or toward the woods, where you could quietly and, without a sound, start walking.

“The Possibilities” a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I pretend that I’m not from here.

I’ve been a huge fan of Hemmings long before her novel,”The Descendants’” was made into a movie starring George Clooney and  Shailene Woodley. I used to devour her blog, “How to Party with an infant” when I had infants myself. 

Her latest novel is another dive into the complex emotional terrain we are all called on to navigate at some point in our lives. This time, Sarah St. John is reeling from the death of her 22-year-old son, Cully, from an avalanche.

They live in a resort ski town in Colorado where she hosts a TV show for the guests of a resort, giving them tips on where to go, what to do, where to eat. But after her son’s death, it seems pointless.  

When a strange girl shows up at her home, with a secret related to her son, it turns everyone’s lives inside out.

Hemmings explores the rocky terrain of grief with honesty and compassion. It feels real, not like what somebody thinks it might be like to lose a child, but how it actually is.

Set against a backdrop of a town whose soul purpose is to entertain and provide and escape from reality while the tourists visit, Sarah and her family and friends are immersed in the complicated reality of their own lives.

A passage I underlined:

We all look around at the well-dressed people of the surrounding rooms. Everything harkens back to a time when people had the same problems yet used a different language.

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A Love Letter to Indie Bookstores.

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Image found here.

“Consumers control the marketplace by deciding where to spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read the book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”

~ Ann Patchett, bestselling author and co-owner of Parnassus Books

Dear Indie Bookstores,

Thank you.

Thank you for your love of books, of stories, of community.

Thank you for standing strong in the face of e-books and on-line selling.

Thank you for your passion.

That you for knowing the difference between fiction and non-fiction. (I’ve been to chain stores where this was not the case.)

Thank you for not only knowing what book I am trying to describe but offering another book I might like as well.

Thank you for being a third place for us to gather, allowing neighborhoods to thrive.

I love how you support writers, how you give them a platform to connect with their readers.

I love how you respect your customers by knowing us, knowing books and knowing the communities you are part of.

I love how when I walk into an indie bookstore anywhere in the world, my soul feels like it has come home.

 

Leaning in to Joy.

Things are going good right now. Great even.

My almost 30-year marriage is strong.

Our daughters will both be done with college by this time next year and are making their way out into the world.

I love creating and holding space for my yoga students.

I am connected to my writing on a daily basis.

I’ve lost over 30 pounds and feel amazing and strong and my back keeps getting stronger every single day.

My best friend of over 30 years moved less than a half an hour away so we get to play whenever we want.

I have a beautiful community of women to lift me up toward my best self.

I love our home.

So, it’s all good.

So, why is this there this sense of unease lurking at the corners of my life? This sense of don’t get too happy, too content because that’s when the rug will get pulled out from under you.

It happens. I know it happens. Loved ones die, marriages end, diagnoses are made.

It happens all the time so it’s only matter of time before it happens to me, so I better be prepared. Better be vigilant and not get too complacent or too smug in my life, in my joy.

The first time I heard Brené brown describe “foreboding joy” I felt chills. That’s me. I do that. all the time. Of course, I never connected it to vulnerability. I didn’t know that the antidote to it is gratitude.

Now, when I feel the shadow of foreboding joy hovering over me, I take a breath and practice gratitude.

I lean into the joy.

I make a conscious decision to choose joy in that moment.

choose joy

Image found via Pinterest.

Holding Space for all of Me.

allow space

Image found via Pinterest.

When we gather in sacred circles, we hold space for each other.

We allow others to have their feelings without intruding on them with offers of tissues, or our own reactions to their feelings—even supportive responses.

This got me thinking about how I do or don’t hold space for myself.

I don’t hold space for myself when I keep myself so busy or so distracted or numb that I can’t feel what needs to be felt.

I don’t hold space for myself when I berate myself for falling short of my own high expectations.

I don’t hold space for myself when drink or eat my way out of loneliness or anxiety or anger.

I do hold space for myself when I have compassion when I have chosen to drink or eat my way out of an uncomfortable emotion.

I do hold space for myself when I ask for what I need rather than feeling resentful when my (unspoken) needs aren’t met.

I do hold space for myself when I make time for self-care through yoga, walking, meditation, writing, reading.

I hold space for myself when I allow myself to see and feel all that needs to be seen and felt rather than banishing it to the shadows.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Rumi poems:

the guest house

Image found via Pinterest.

I hold space for myself by inviting each guest in, welcoming each and every one.

Walking Unplugged.

walking unplugged

Today I walked unplugged.

Today I heard the sound of my breath,

the dull click of my dog’s nails against the concrete,

the rustle of leaves as a squirrel scurried by,

the music of the wind.

Today I walked unplugged and listened to the breathings of my heart.

Today my mind was open to what was all around me,

what was within me.

Today I walked unplugged and felt a deep connection to the world,

to myself,

to the beauty of life that surrounds me.

Tracking Fear.

Be Brave

Image found via Pinterest.

When I was little, my fears were tangible things: tornados, house fire, being kidnapped, snakes. These things never happened but I was aware of them and knew that they frightened me.

As an adult, fear is a much more nebulous thing. Sure, I still have concrete fears but it’s the subconscious fears that trip me up. If you’ve ever taken any kind of therapy, read any self-help or spiritual book, you’ve probably heard that most of our challenges come from fear. Most negative emotions can be traced back to fear. Angry? Dig deeper to find what you’re afraid of and using anger to mask. Procrastinating? Pause and try to unearth what fear lies beneath the procrastination.

Our human brains are wired for fear. Our survival depends on it. Fear alerts us to the danger around us, triggering our fight or flight response. These days our fight or flight can be triggered due to the content state of stress we are under.

This is where yoga and writing come in for me. They allow me to track fear. They keep me grounded in the present where everything is okay. Yoga allows me to stay present to exactly what is happening in my body and in my mind. Writing allows me to stay present to what I’m really thinking and feeling beneath the surface.

Both yoga and writing do not permit me to hide. They require me to dive deep and that is where I discover the fear that is holding me back. Once I am aware of it, I can release it.

Once that happens my life expands. And I expand to fill it.

The Solace (and Necessity) of Walking.

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I’ve started walking about three to four miles several times a week.

I take my dog, a podcast and head out either through our neighborhood or to the parks nearby. Walking has become my antidote to the constant barrage of awful news. I get outside, into the real world, away from the on-line world that feels like an echo chamber of doom. I step into the sunshine, into the fresh air, see the beautiful sky, the trees and  feel a certain solace.

It reminds me that there is more going on than just what I see in the news or on-line.

So many writers are proponents of walking. Julia Cameron suggests walks as one of the tools for creative recovery.

Brenda Ueland says, “I will tell you what I have learned myself. For me, a long five or six mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day.”

In his essay “Walking” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Listening to my podcast doesn’t leave me free from all worldly engagements but it does leave me not quite as tethered to them.

It’s not surprising that writers are especially drawn to walks. I think it provides a necessary complement to all the sitting, to the stagnation we can begin to feel in our bodies and our minds.

Walking is helpful to literal digestion but think it also helps me digest emotions, news, idea. I digest what I am reading, what I am writing.

Not only that, but walking seems to stimulate our creative juices. According to a study from Stanford University found that walking led to more creative thinking than sitting did.

If I haven’t convinced you to start a daily walking routine, maybe Austin Kleon can. I love what he says here:

“Almost every single morning, rain or shine, my wife and I load our two sons into a red double stroller (we call it The War Rig) and we take a 3-mile walk around our neighborhood. It’s often painful, sometimes sublime, but it’s always essential to our day. It’s when ideas are born, when we make plans, when we spot suburban wildlife, when we rant about politics, when we exorcise our demons.”

Exorcising my demons is exactly what it feels like. And that is both a solace and a necessity.

What If It Isn’t Up to Me?

surrender

I heard these magical words on the “Serenity, Now” episode from the podcast “From the Heart:Conversations with Yoga Girl.”

Rachel Brathen talks honestly about her back pain and her struggles with blaming herself when it goes out every 3-4 months. This time it happened when she picked up her baby girl.When she saw her chiropractor he said that of course she had to pick up her baby and suggested that maybe her back going out or not going out wasn’t up to her.

Wait, what?

Not up to her?

If it’s not up to her then maybe it’s not up to me, either.

Maybe it’s not to me when my own back goes out.

Maybe it’s not up to me to make sure everyone is happy around me whether it’s my family, friends or students.

Wow.

How self-centered this is.

Up to me, me, me.

What if it isn’t up to me?

What a relief.

I hear those words and I feel I can take a deep breath for the first time ever.

It’s not up to me.

What is up to me?

To be present.

Present to my family.

Present to my friends.

Present to my students.

Present to my body.

Present to my writing.

Present to each moment.

Surrender the need to fix and just be present to what is.

 

Fear Compass.

Fear compass

“Fear compass.” I heard this term on NPR this morning and it reverberated through my whole being like a tuning fork.

It got me thinking not only about fear as a compass, but any strong emotion. They all reveal something.

Envy reveals what I desire for myself.

Anger reveals where a boundary has been breached.

Fear reveals what is important to me.

Liz Gilbert’s suggestion to live life with curiosity rather than fear also resonates with me. Wonder becomes a door into and through fear.

I wonder if this agent is a good fit for my novel, instead of only focusing on if they will like it.

I wonder what happens in this next scene, instead of being paralyzed into writing nothing because I have no idea.

I wonder if I could be a yoga teacher, instead of letting anxiety about my looming empty nest crush me.

Wondering if I could combine writing with yoga led me to find my authentic voice and create a sacred space for students to find theirs.

So, it seems that fear points me in the direction of curiosity, leading me to live a creative life in awe of the wonder around and within me.

Where does fear point you?

 

When I First Heard about Columbine.

never again

Image found via facebook.

There are certain events that I will always remember where I was when I heard about them.

I was on the school bus when I heard about the death of John Lennon.

I was standing in the kitchen when a friend called to tell me about the (first) plane flying into the World Trade Center on 9/11.

I was in my bedroom, packing to fly out to my sister, when a nurse called to tell me that my brother-in-law had died from his injuries sustained in the car accident.

On April 20, 1999, I was on a pay phone at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, attending my first ever writing retreat with Natalie Goldberg.

It had taken a lot of convincing on my husband’s part to get me to go. I objected that we couldn’t afford it, that even we could afford it there were better things to spend that money on, that I couldn’t leave him with girls for a whole week, that my oldest had to go to Kindergarten Round-up. My husband  assured me that none of those excuses were actually based in reality, so I went.

Obviously, this was before cell phones, texting and FaceTime. I tried to call once a day from the pay phone. The work was intense. Because I was so secluded from the world, I dove deep into the process of writing, filling three entire notebooks in seven days.

On April 20, after I spoke with both of my daughters, my husband got back on the phone. I heard something in his voice. When I asked what was wrong, he didn’t want to tell me. He didn’t want to burden me with it, knowing that I was pretty much off the media grid and hadn’t yet heard. After some prodding he told me about the shooting at Columbine.

Even just hearing about it, without seeing the constant barrage of images on a TV, was chilling. As the news began to spread throughout the rest of the participants, a palpable heaviness descended on the repeat. That night the wind was intense at the base of the mountain. Natalie shared that Native Americans believe that wind like that is carrying spirits into the afterlife.

When I got to the airport a couple days later, the images were splashed over all the televisions. I remember watching the line of kids, hands on their heads walking out of the school and thinking it didn’t seem real. There was a subdued quality to the crowds of passengers huddle around the images.

My youngest remembers being on lockdown in kindergarten. A real lockdown, not a drill. She remembers hiding behind a desk and seeing the silhouette of a man slide past the window and she didn’t know if it was a police office or the bad guy.

Last month she ended up on lockdown again, this time up at Central Michigan University when a shooter was at -large. It turned out that he didn’t have a gun with him while on the run after shooting and killing his parents in his dorm.

But nobody knew that.

Nobody knew how bad the carnage would be.

We didn’t know because we’ve seen how bad it has been.

Over and over again.

I pray that the next life-changing event I remember will soon be the passage of sensible, national gun control.

Because we know how bad the carnage has been.

Shame on us for ever letting it happen again.