A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

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I’ve always been wary of poetry. Never feeling quite smart enough to get it. I think high school dissections of poems did that to me. Since I went to art school, I wasn’t exposed to poetry as part of my education. So, as part of my self-education as a writer and a human, I explored poetry myself. Not poems that I was told I should read, but poems that spoke to me, that lured me in somehow.

I remember being drawn in by the title of this collection and back then I had been devouring all of her novels. I skimmed through it and came across this poem at the end called “Six underrated pleasures.” Six pieces on folding sheets, picking pole beans, taking a hot bath, sleeping with cats, planting bulbs, and canning.

You could write about folding sheets? That was poetry? My world cracked open. Poetry didn’t have to be dense and impenetrable. Poetry was simply paying deep attention to what was right in front on you.

“Whenever I fold a fitted sheet

making the moves that are like

closing doors, I feel my mother.

The smell of clean laundry is hers.”

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Books Read June-August.

Books June-Sept

“Alice & Oliver” a novel by Charles Bock

There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked.

Looking back it is interesting that the novel starts with her physical looks, and the mundane concerns so many women have about their bodies. Those concerns are swiftly replaced by literal life and death concerns with Alice’s sudden cancer diagnosis. Her life as a fashion designer, wife and new mother morphs into life as a patient fighting for her life. We get an intimate look at a marriage and what it means to vow to stay together in sickness and in health. Flaws that every marriage has are magnified under such duress. We are also offered a realistic look into our feeble healthcare system as Oliver struggles to handle not only the day-today care of their infant, Doe, but the monetary costs of a life threatening illness as he navigates the insurance labyrinth.

A passage I love:

She raised her head from the stretcher; snow stung her cheeks. For long moments she almost believed some peculiar form of magic was indeed waiting for her. Alice could not help herself: she extended her tongue.

 

“The Bright Hour- A Memoir of Living and Dying” by Nina Riggs

The call comes when John is away at a conference in New Orleans.

Yes, I read this memoir about cancer and a marriage right after reading the novel about cancer and a marriage. Not on purpose. Got a little freaked out that the Universe was trying to tell me something. Prepare me for something.

Nina Riggs is a poet, wife and mother who is diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer at the age of 37. It all started with one small spot. Within a year, she was terminal. Through her poet’s eye and mind, she is able to look carefully within and around her to describe what it is like to live “with death in the room.” She calls on writers she has loved over the years to help her make sense of this new, brief yet full world she is now living in. She manages to make us laugh as she becomes determined to find the perfect couch to leave behind for her family and to laugh and cry as she reveals conversations with her husband and sons. It is a breathtaking book that calls on us all to live each moment fully no matter how close death is standing next to us. Because, really, we never truly now how close it may be.

A passage I love that breaks my heart:

Around 4 a.m. I feel his hand on my back. “I’m so afraid I can’t breathe,” he whispers.

“I know,” I say, scootching a little toward him but still facing away, “So am I.”

 

“The Vacationers” a novel by Emma Straub

Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar.

I meant to take this on vacation with me back in May because reading about a vacation on vacation sounded fun. But then I forgot to pack it. It all worked out though because reading this book felt like a vacation in itself as she described the lush scenery, the scrumptious food.

The Posts, Franny and Jim, are on a two-week trip to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Their daughter, Sylvia who has just graduated high school is looking to lose her virginity before heading off to college. Their son Bobby comes with his older girlfriend who is a fitness buff and rubs Franny the wrong way. Franny’s best friend, Charles has come with his husband. Everyone’s problems has followed them to this beautiful vacation spot. As a food writer, Franny throws herself into feeding her family and friends all while a seething resentment lurks just beneath the surface. Over the course of 14 days, things that are hidden are revealed and things that should be revealed stay hidden. A funny, touching glimpse into the messiness of family and friendship.

A sentence that made me laugh out loud:

Like most things, sex got better with age until one hit a certain plateau, and then it was like breakfast, unlikely to change unless one ran out of milk and was forced to improvise.

 

“The Accomplished Guest” stories by Ann Beattie

“There’s no copyright on titles,” he said. ”It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something Death of a Salesman, but you could do it.”

I remember reading her first collection, “Distortions” and had no idea it had been published 40 years ago. When I was first learning to write, I would read her stories, each one seeming like its own little master class in the form.

These feel the same way. Entering a short story by Ann Beattie is to enter a world fully formed. In this collection people wander in and out of each other’s lives as guests, as hosts, as visitors. The settings will be familiar to Beattie fans: strewn up and down the east Coast from Maine to Key West. Spanning events from birthdays to anniversaries, all explore reunions with people we used to know and the people we all used to be.

A sentence I love for its sensuality:

He broke off a bit of bread and breathed in its yeasty aroma; he pushed the point of his knife into some sunflower-yellow butter, well tempered, and smeared it over the bread’s pocked surface.

 

“Morningstar- Growing Up with Books” by Ann Hood

When I was four years old, for reasons no one in my family could explain, I picked up my older brother Skip’s reading book and read it.

I love reading about how books have influenced lives, especially when it’s the life of a writer I adore like Ann Hood. She takes us on a journey through her life via the books that wormed their way into her psyche, helping to form the woman she became. We learn about the books of her teen years from The Bell Jar to Marhjorie Mornigstar. We learn what books stoked her political fire and which led her to want to travel the world. It’s a beautiful tribute to books, to reading and how they can change—or even save—our lives.

A sentence I love for reading my own heart:

But not to me—no, I understood that I would always buy books, that I was a reader and a writer and that to be surrounded by books would always bring me comfort.

 

“Walks with Men” fiction by Ann Beattie

In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.

I came across this slim volume of fiction nestled in the used books stacks of a local bookstore. An Ann Beattie book I hadn’t read yet? Sold!

I guess, technically, this would be considered a novella. But it really seems to exist outside of a genre. It echoes Beattie’s own trajectory as a successful young woman arriving in New York City, ready to be a writer and all that entails.

No sooner has Jane, a valedictorian from Harvard, arrived in the city when she strikes up an odd yet intense deal/relationship with Neil, a writer 20 years older than her. He promises to tell her anything at all, as long as it is unattributed and that nobody knows about their relationship. Having been in a secret relationship myself at one point, I wanted to scream, No, run. Don’t do it. Of course, Jane doesn’t run. She stays and Neil proceeds to educate her by laying out rules from wearing only raincoats made in England to having sex in an airplane bathroom. His certainty about everything both seduces and repels Jane. When his certainty is found to be a mask for his deceptions, Jane must decide who she is and who she wants to be.

A sentence I love for surprising me:

Sailors know how to train their eyes on the horizon to avoid seasickness. When you’re landlocked in New York City, look at the farthest curb, which, in its own way, is the horizon line.

 

“Night” by Elie Wiesel

They called him Moshe the Beadle, as though he had never had a surname in his life.

I’ve had this book on my shelves for over twenty years. I remember Oprah mentioned it on her show and I went out and bought but could never quite bring myself to sit down and actually read it. Well, with everything going on in our country right now and in the world, it felt imperative that I read it.

After reading it, it feels imperative that we all read it.

As a young Jewish boy, Wiesel and his family are rounded up and carted off to concentration camps. What horrified me was how even as it was happening, they didn’t really believe it was happening. They believed that somebody would stop it. That it wouldn’t be allowed to go so far. Perhaps the idea of such unadulterated evil is too hard for the human mind to process.

It was hard for me to process as I read it. It’s a first hand account of what it was like to be targeted based on your religion, deemed less than by others who sought to erase your very existence.

I read every word.

We should all read every word.

And heed every word.

Before it’s too late.

A passage that haunts me:

Night. No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly. The stars were only sparks of the fire which devoured us. Should that fire die out one day, there would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes.

 

Thank you, Dani Shapiro.

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Jealousy. Envy. Not pleasant emotions. Personally, I don’t believe the two are interchangeable. To me, jealousy is about what somebody has, something that you want for yourself. Envy feels more inward. When I feel envy it’s because I want to be like that person. I want to have their qualities, not their things.

So, the other morning I realized I envy Dani Shapiro. I admire the hell out of her. I read all of her books. I listen to interviews with her. Every blog she posts feels like she is writing directly into my heart. So when envy came up I knew enough to pause instead of my usual MO when something uncomfortable arises which is to get the hell away from it. (Thank you yoga practice for teaching me to stay.)

Envy is an especially efficient mirror back to yourself if you stay with it. What you learn can act as a compass to your own truth north. I asked myself what I envied exactly.

~ All the books she’s written from memoir to novels to writing about writing

~ the way her days seems to be intimately woven around her writing life

~ she teaches meditation, yoga and writing retreats

~ she teaches in exotic locales like Positano, Italy

Then I ask myself what is exactly that I want in my life.

~ I want to explore different kinds of writing

I am taking notes now on a nonfiction book based on the class I created called Poses, Pens + Inner Peace while I continue to work on my novel and essays and blog posts.

~ I want to spend more portions of my days immersed in writing.

So, after meditating and a brief yoga practice to get all the kinks out my mind and body, I’ve begun taking my breakfast and tea straight to my desk where my first treat of the day is to dip back into Shapiro’s wonderful book on the creative life, “Still Writing.” From there I set a timer for 30 minutes and work on my novel. Then I do some mundane household task then come back to the novel or a blog post or some other piece of writing.

~ I already teach a class that combines yoga, mediation and writing.

It’s something I knew I wanted to do the minute I stepped on my mat. I feel the same energy on my mat that I feel in my writing—an energy that connects to deeper parts of myself. Holding space for a group as they release stories through yoga and writing and share with the class is an honor to me each and every week.

~ I want to expand Poses, Pens + Inner Peace beyond that one Thursday night class.

I envision taking this class as a retreat to different parts of the country, even abroad, bringing groups of women together in a sacred circle to heal, to reclaim parts of themselves they have lost, to celebrate their magnificent light.

So, really this is a thank you to Dani Shapiro. Thank you for living an authentic, beautiful, messy creative life that tugged at something in me and allowed to envision what kind of creative life I want for myself. Thank you for the example of your work ethic that I can admire and emulate to then take the steps to make that vision a reality. Thank you for the honesty of your words that pierce my heart. Thank you for sharing those words with the world.

List: Top 5 Books that Illuminated my Writing Path.

I love lists so each Saturday my plan is to share a list of some sort,                                    covering a range of topics

five books

These are the top five books that started me on the writing path and that I turn to again and again.

  1. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. This is the absolute first book that offered me a glimmer of recognition that perhaps I could write. Actually, that I must write.
  2. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott She helped and continues to help me loosen the grip of perfectionism by taking it word by word, allowing myself to write shitty first drafts and writing what I can see through a 1-inch picture frame.
  3. “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson As he takes us meticulously through his process of writing one particular short story, Carlson reminds of the importance of doing the work, of staying in the room even when—especially when—I want leave.
  4. “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long This is a book about process and craft but it goes deep into all the layers of craft far beyond character, plot and setting. Never fails to get my pen moving again.
  5. “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro I have read this gem at least three times, maybe four and am currently reading it each morning as I eat my breakfast and drink tea at my desk before plunging into my own writing. Her honest reflection of the writing life comforts me as I continue to show up to the page and to my own writing life.

What books illuminate the writer in you? Please share in the comments!

Five on Friday.

Each Friday I try to share five links that made me think, inspired me or I just found entertaining throughout the week.

  1. This whet my appetite for more international travel.
  2. Pretty sure I’ve had ALL these feelings.
  3. I love doing this kind of workout when I don’t have a lot of time.
  4. A great resource for vegan recipes. And these brownies look ah-may-zing!
  5. One of the best pieces I’ve read on the horror that descended on Charlottesville.

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I am going to feature a book that I truly love, that helped shape me as a writer, as a woman, as a human.

Still-Writing-by-Dani-Shapiro

I sat at my desk this morning with some toast and a cup of tea and began reading this book again. It’s at least the third time, maybe even the fourth. With each re-reading, I underline new passages, make new notes in the margins and feel like I am in conversation with her. I pick this particular book up when I need tender yet tough guidance back to my writing self, back into a space of compassion yet dedication to the work, to the process. I love how she calls it a creative life. It’s holistic and permeates her days not just the time at her desk or on the computer. Every page, every blog post she writes, every interview she gives, I feel like she is speaking directly to me. As we begin to ease out of summer (my girls are back up at college) I needed a gentle yet firm nudge not only back to the page but back to living a writer’s life and she provides it once again.

“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.”

Big Myth.

In my Poses, Pens + Inner Peace class that I teach (where we combine writing with mediation and yoga) we’ve been working through “Warrior Goddess Training” by Heatherash Amara. We finished it this past week with a writing exercise devoted to what she calls the big myth.

“Your big myth is the big picture for how and why your unique,precious Warrior Goddess light arrived own the planet…Pick a big myth that makes you glow. Forget sensible or practical or real. Make it big, magic medicine that you incarnated with.”

I loved this and wanted to share my big myth:

Big Myth

I come from the ancient stardust of comets taking flight across the universe. My tribe stand barefoot in a circle around a fire and watch the comet that is me meet the fire that is my life here on earth.

The stardust mingles with the flames and the earth and the voices of them chanting me into existence. Smoke swirls and rises as the women sway and dance around the fire until I stand fully formed in the sacred center of their circle, their skin glowing, hands clasped, eyes lighting up at my birth among them.

They each take a turn welcoming me into their sisterhood, their words like breadcrumbs on the path to rediscover my true self for once the circle is broken the knowledge of who I truly am and where I came from vanishes becoming a test for me to go out into the world and deep within myself to unearth that gift once again. Each barrier I encounter acting as a Guardian at the Gate, demanding to know how badly I want it.

I let their words seep into my skin, my breath, my bones, my heart…

Do not shrink to make others feel comfortable.

Take time for silence, time to be.

Listen more than you wait for your turn to speak.

Sing and dance and laugh and play. Never be afraid of looking foolish or silly. Embrace joy.

Guard your heart fiercely but hold it lightly.

Speak your truth to others and to yourself.

Keep the door open.

Tread lightly yet with purpose.

Stay curious

I cherish their words, knowing they are my compass home.

Wednesday Writing Prompt.

In honor of the summer solstice…

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Image found via Pinterest.

She floats in the space where the water merges with the sky,

the horizon almost invisible, the sky becoming water, the water becoming sky.

The water cradles her, the sky supports her.

The water ripples below, the clouds undulate above.

Timeless.

Effortless.

Suspended between who she is in this moment and who she will in the next,

perfectly content to just be here,

in this moment,

her breath echoing beneath the water,

an ancient hum reverberating through her bones,

her shadow another presence beneath her,

reminding her of the dark that always exists

even under the brightest of suns.

Books Read in May.

May 2017 Books

“Marlena” a novel by Julie Buntin

Tell me what you can’t forget and I’ll tell you who you are.

Some say that we never forget our first great love. I believe we never forget our first great friendship. That friend that shines a light into our darkness and casts a shadow on our light. The friendship is deep, quick, complicated. That’s how it is between fifteen-year-old Cat and seventeen-year-old, pill-popping, seen-too-much-life-already Marlena. Cat moves with her mother and older brother to a rural town in northern Michigan. The setting itself is exquisitely wrought, becoming an accomplice to the friendship. Cat’s mother is newly divorced, her father unavailable, her brother postponing college to help out financially and emotionally. Marlena is a perfect distraction. Cat is drawn into her life, her secrets, her pain as Marlena initiates her into her first everything: kiss, drink, pill. Within a year, Marlena is found dead in the woods nearby, drowned in a mere six inches of icy water. The story weaves the past and the present, moving back and forth between Michigan and New York as adult Cat receives a call from the past, whisking her back into the summer that changed everything. This is a gorgeous story of the complications of teenage female friendship, addiction, lust, boredom and searching for something to hold onto in the midst of things falling apart.

A sentence I love:

She’s leaning into my face, her cheeks iridescent as if recently wiped clean of tears, her mouth against my chin, finding my lips, and the her tongue, something un-cooked and too wet about it, something silly, and just as I begin to formulate a word for what is happening, kissing, she disintegrates into laughter, breathing it into me until it bubbles from her throat and overflows. like her laugh is my creation. And a smell, like scratching a branch with your nail until its green flesh shows, the residue left behind on your fingers.

“American War” a novel by Omar El Akkad

When I was young, I collected postcards. 

A second American Civil War breaks out in 2076. In our current incredibly polarized country, this isn’t hard to imagine. Reading this rich, complex novel we don’t need to imagine it, we only need to drop into the near distant future he has painted for us. In this world, war is not some abstract entity but a specific atrocity that impacts the daily life of Sarat Chestnut and her family. Woven with historical documents, letters and oral history to give a full picture of how we got to civil war again and what was happening behind the scenes, “American War” often read less like a novel and more like an inevitable reality. Stunning.

As an added incentive to check this novel out, my husband rarely reads fiction. Well, he picked this up on our vacation and finished it in in less than 72 hours.

A sentence I love: 

Why was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?

She’d learned recently that solid land was not the natural skin of the world, only a kind of parasitic condition that surfaced and receded in million-year cycles. the natural skin of the world was water, and all water on earth was connected.

“The Universe Has Your Back- Transform Fear to Faith” by Gabrielle Bernstein

In the spring of 2015, I had a meltdown in a yoga class.

I chose this book for the book club I lead at our yoga studio. I had one week to read it when I finally picked it up. It turns out it was perfect (divine) timing. My low back started given me problems last Sunday. Seemingly out of the blue. I had no choice but to slow down. Way, way down. In doing so, I gave this book much more attention than I normally would have. I was able to really absorb what she was saying as well as write out the prompts and even do many of the meditations. So, because my back went out-ish, I was able to dive deep into her words. And they have had a profound effect on me. The main gift I took away was how prayer and co-creating with the Universe is a dance that can happen all day long, in any situation. I guess I usually think of prayer as a bookend to my days, not something to call on throughout the day as needed.

Even the title spoke to me. The Universe has my BACK. It’s not just all on me to figure out what is happening, to fix it, to heal it. My back has become this metaphor for fear and how I become so tentative in my life for fear of hurting it. And then, just when I was finally feeling free of that fear, it went out for no discernible reason. Transforming fear into faith was exactly what I needed to explore.

I underlined, starred and wrote in the margins of almost every single page. So much to take in, so much to explore. Seriously life-changing for me.

A sentence I love: 

As a spiritual activist, I believe that the greatest power we have to combat the terror of these times is our power to live in love. Love casts out all fear.