A Book I Love. #TBT

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

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“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott became my writing bible for a while. Her simple advice, her passion, her authentic, messy real self appealed to me on a deep level. She wasn’t afraid to admit to the hard parts of writing. She didn’t pretend that she sat down easily everyday as the words just flowed from her fingertips from some muse on high. In fact, the only muse she endorsed was the work. Showing up was the muse. To this day, I still use her advice: one-inch picture frame to write the next scene, shitty first drafts to write the thing at all and taking it all one word at a time.

A Book I Love. #TBT

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

Where love leaves us

This week’s book is another story collection. This one by Renée Manfredi called, “Where Love Leaves Us.”

One story in particular haunted me for years. I remember certain details to this day and I remember dissecting each scene, trying to figure out how she had created this story that just mesmerized me. In “Bocci” ten-year-old Elena is herself mesmerized by her Catholic religion. The story starts with her declaring to her mother, “Jesus Christ is a blood clot in my leg.” Her mother is less then enthralled by her daughter’s obsession. Her father makes up for that by his sheer devotion to his daughter. But that devotion and her devotion to her religion cannot save her from the violent ugliness in the world.

A sentence I underlined: She is ten, an ordinary little girl whose imagination sometimes intersects inconveniently with truth; all of her imaginary friends die tragic deaths and she grieves them as though they were real.

A Book I Love. #TBT

Each Thursday in honor of #TBT, I 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 love short stories. I love reading them, I love writing them. Doing both is how I taught myself to write. When I first saw this week’s title seven years ago I knew I had to buy it.

It is “If I loved you, I would tell you this” by Robin Black. The title alone grabbed me but then the writing. Oh, the writing and the characters and their stories. Well, I knew immediately that it would be placed on my Permanent Bookshelf. They are exactly the kinds of stores I long to write—honest explorations of what it means to be human.

Ron Carlson once said that literary fiction is about the complications of the human heart. That’s what these stores explore with such grace and depth.

Today happens to be the 7-year anniversary of this book’s publication. I’ve read everything she’s written since including the novel “Life Drawing” and a collection of essays on writing and life, “Crash Course.” Honestly, I’d read her grocery list. And once I learned that she was 48 when her first story collection was published, my writer crush was solidified. As a writer approaching 52, I yearn for role models of women who didn’t give up, who started late, who set their voice loose into the world. Robin Black is absolutely that role model for me. My writing bucket list includes taking a writing workshop with her.

(As a bonus, there’s a great conversation between Black and Karen Russell at the end of the book.)

A sentence I underlined: Every once in a while. though, that softening patina an extra glass of Chianti can give, that velvet cloth it lays over every jagged edge, evokes a kind of humble gratitude in me.

A Book I Love. #TBT

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

Anywhere But Here

“Anywhere But Here”  a novel by Mona Simpson

I remember not being able to put this down. I am fascinated by mother/daughter stories—reading them and writing them. This one mesmerized me and made me want to write my own novel. Up to then I had been dabbling in short stories. When a teacher once commented that my writing reminded her of Mona Simpson, I almost swooned with joy.

The first two sentences hooked me: We fought. When my mother and I crossed state lines in the stolen car, I’d sit against the window and wouldn’t talk.

The tension was set up from the first two simple words.The whole novel explored this tension, this parting and coming back together between Ann (daughter) and Adele (mother). They were both such complex characters that I alternately loved and loathed and it made me realize how important that is to a story. No character (or real life person) is all good or all bad.

The story pulled me along but the sentences themselves left me dazzled. I’d set the book down, pausing, telling myself that this was the kind of book I wanted to write. It still is.

The Practice of Tapas.

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“Life without tapas is like a heart without love.” ~ BKS Iyengar

One of the stories I’ve told myself over the years is that I am lazy. I’ve lugged that word around throughout high school, college all the way up to the present. Nothing I did was enough (according to me).

Then I discovered tapas. Not the delicious appetizers but the third niyama that calls on me to stoke my inner fire. Literally it comes from the root sanskrit word “tap” which means “to burn.” I take it to mean to burn away everything that holds me back from achieving what I want and being who I want to be. That means burning away the story that I am lazy.

As a writer, I’ve struggled with procrastination on an almost daily basis. My shelves are lined with books promising the secret to being a productive writer. I’ve tried many different tips from waking up early to writing late at night, from focusing on word counts to time spent writing, writing at home to writing in coffee shops.They all worked, for a while. Then I’d drift back into this wishy-washy limbo of wanting to write but never quite committing to it.

Last year I embarked on a year-long writing challenge based on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” advice. The theory is that you set up a system of marking an x for each day you  show up to write, the goal being to not break the chain. I sat up a dry erase board with 365 boxes for each day of the year. Dutifully, I showed up each day to write something, anything, no word count, no minimum time required and once I did that I could make my x. I did it. Every single day .

This year I decided to require a little more from myself. I still must write every single day but Monday -Friday I need to write at least 500 words on my current WIP. Saturday and Sunday can be for the WIP or Morning Pages or blog posts. I am using the same dry erase board as last year only I am coloring in the top triangle blue for the days I write at least 500 words, red for the weekends.

It’s working. I am up to almost 50,00 words on my novel. I wrote on days when I was crazy busy, when I wasn’t feeling well, even when we had a 72-hour power outage.The story is finding its way, the characters are finding their way and I am finding mine.

What I’m discovering is that practicing tapas in one area of my life is spilling into other areas. I’ve meditated every day since November 9. Some days it’s just been two minutes. Others it’s been thirty. I find myself with more confidence as I continually meet these goals I set for myself that nobody but me cares if I meet. If I can do this, what else can I do?

With this fire ignited, anything is possible.

#TBT: A Book I Love

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

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In honor of his reading that I am attending tonight, today’s book is “Fitting Ends and Other Stories” by Dan Chaon.

When I was first teaching myself to write short stories, I turned to this book over and over, poring over each story to discover what made it tick for me. Each one hooked me from the first sentence and kept me hooked to the last. I was mesmerized by his ability  to meticulously dissect the emotional fallout from tragedy: a father and son attend AA together, an accident befalls a fraternity, a father is having chemotherapy, a boy sees his older brother wearing women’s clothes. I remember being haunted by the lingering residue of the stories much like the character in the title story is haunted by the death of his brother. Reading this collection felt like my own master class in short story writing.

A sentence I underlined back then: I remember being surprised by the sound that came from my throat, a high scream like a rabbit’s that seemed to ricochet downward, a stone rattling though a long drainpipe.

Observations on Being Without Power.

 

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Image found via Pinterest.

Our state recently experienced an historic power outage due to winds of up to 60 miles per hour. My house was without power for over 72 hours. Here are a few things I observed.

Of course there is the initial annoyance. No power (and no generator) meant no lights, no heat, no water, no refrigerator. At first, it wasn’t that bad. It almost felt like a reprieve from normal life. But soon, it got old. I went to the bookstore for the afternoon to get warm and charge my phone and laptop. That night, my husband and I drank some wine and played a few games of Cribbage by candlelight. Sweet, fun and a little romantic. But waking up to a really cold house the next morning, the reprieve glow had worn off. I went to the gym to work out and take a shower. My daughter and I tried to find a place to get warm and charge our phones but every place was full. So, we got food to go and went to the yoga studio where I teach. No classes in the middle of the day so we had it to ourselves: warmth, wifi, outlets to charge. All in all, a pretty nice afternoon especially since I wrote over 2000 words on my current WIP.

That night we stayed in hotel where my husband had a business meeting. Perfect timing. Enjoyed a warm bed and a hot tub. Woke up to news that the power was back. Yay! On my way home, my daughter called to say the power was NOT back on. Boo!

I began to notice how easily swayed my mood was by things completely out of my control. I found myself getting incredibly irritated when the DTE app hadn’t updated the repair status and that irritation began to spill out all over the place. It made me wonder how often I let my mood be influenced by things out of my control. How often did I let irritations pile up and feed off each other until I was just miserable to be around for myself and others?

Each time I walked into a room, I hit the light switch. Every. Single. time. It made me realize how ingrained our habits are. It made me wonder what else I do just out of habit, basically on auto-pilot?

As the irritation began to build I realized that I was just waiting to get the power back. Just waiting. Filling time until everything was back to normal That’s what drinking the wine was about the first night. Let’s make this a little less uncomfortable and make the time pass a little easier. I wonder how often I did that, bypassing what was uncomfortable, waiting for things to happen that I want to happen.

As offers to use friends’ refrigerators or freezers to save our food, or their house for warmth or an invitation to sleep in their spare room came in, I found how awkward I felt when offered such gifts. I have no problem at all offering such gifts to others, but receiving is not easy for me. Even when it was my best friend in the whole world. She had me come down to her home for the day where she made me a fresh salad, had bought my favorite tea and crackers. I said, “My gosh you are spoiling me.” She said with a lot of passion that somebody should spoil me, that I deserve it. That I take care of everyone else all the time and the sometimes I needed to be taken care of myself. I heard the words, and I tried to receive them with an open heart but I could feel myself closing up against them. How often do I refuse to ask for help or feel guilty when accepting it?

Finally, being powerless felt like a huge, neon metaphor for how I’ve felt since the election. Certain things are just out of my control no matter how many calls I make, marches I attend, petitions I sign, meetings I go to, postcards I send.

So, with so many things out of my control, what is within my control? Always my response. Always. I chose to get irritated by the power being out. I chose to check the app twenty-five times a days, hoping to see an update. I chose to drink several large glasses of wine to escape the situation in front of me. But I also chose to seek out warmth. To continue my meditation practice even if just for two minutes. I chose to continue showing up to my current WIP, making progress despite what was going around me. Chose to notice when it felt uncomfortable accepting offers of help. I chose to accept the help anyway, learning to get comfortable with it.

Now that the lights are back on, I hope to stay aware of what is in my power, and what is not. To stay awake to my habits instead of sleepwalking through my days. To be grateful for help when it is offered and brave enough to ask when I need it, believing that I am deserving of it. To be grateful for all that I have that I blindly take for granted as I easily flip on a light switch to light up a room or turn on the faucet to receive water or open the refrigerator full of fresh food.

Just like Dorothy, the power is always within us.

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Image found via Pinterest.

 

Books Read September – December

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“The Underground Railroad” a novel by Colson Whitehead

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Well, Oprah was right to choose this for her book club. In this brilliant novel, the underground railroad is not a mere metaphor. It is a literal train that runs underground, helping to free slaves, specifically Cora and Caesar. Their story is mesmerizing while shining a light on a brutal history we all share. It’s not only the journey of Cora as she encounters different worlds at each stop along the way, but it’s the journey of an entire people and we are given a glimpse into the terrifying life they were forced into.

A sentence I love: George sawed with his fiddle, the notes swirling up into night like sparks gusted from a fire.

“Hungry Heart- Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing” by Jennifer Weiner

The other day, I was walking home from the hair salon to pick up my eight-year-old after school.

If you have followed me at all, you know that I am incredibly curious about other writers’ lives. So, when I saw this book I just had to read it. She covers her life from childhood through adulthood and everything along the way that made her a writer from a father who left her, to being a journalist. It was great to get an inside look at a life that partially has been played out in her books. The sister from “In her Shoes” has got to be modeled after her own sister. She doesn’t shy away from issues of weight and body image, in fact, she embraces them. Her storytelling keeps you hooked, her humor is quick and a sharp (her tweets about “The Bachelor” make we want to watch it just so I can be in on the jokes!) and I closed the book feeling I knew more about her as both a woman and a writer.

A sentence I love: Remember the way you lived in your body before you learned to see only the wrong in it.

 “The Alchemist” a novel by Paulo Coehlo

The boy’s name was Santiago.

I read this enchanting story years ago but after rereading it, this time after becoming a yoga teacher and living my yoga on and off the mat, it had a whole  new, deeper resonance. It really spoke to my heart, this whole idea of following your heart, following your intuition, which is what led me to become a yoga teacher, which has led me to create a class that combines the alchemy of both yoga and writing. In a world that often feels hopeless, this book shines a light on the very hope we need.

2 sentences I love:

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.”

“Commonwealth” a novel by Ann Patchett

The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.

Indeed it did, and that turn sets the stage for a chance encounter that reverberates through two families over five decades.

When Franny begins an affair with a literary hero of hers, Leon Posen, she tells him intimate details of her childhood that become the basis for a best-selling book and eventually, movie. She has no idea that she has set in motion  a ripple that will force both families to deal with issues they have kept buried for many, many years. It’s a rich novel full of love and loss, guilt and loyalty, life and death.

Ann Patchett is masterful at creating complex characters with complex stories and I am just happy to be along for the ride.

Several sentences I love:

Life, Theresa knew by now, was a series of losses. It was other things too, better things, but the losses were as solid and dependable as the earth itself.

“There’s no protecting anyone,” Fix said, and reached over from his wheelchair to put his hand on hers. “Keeping people safe is a story we tell ourselves.”

“Ongoingness- The End of a Diary” by Sarah Manguso

I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago. It’s eight hundred thousand words long.

I literally just finished this book. Part of me thinks I should wait to reflect until I’ve had time to process it, perhaps after I’ve allowed myself the luxury of reading it again all through in one sitting. But another part of me wants to get my thoughts down before they evaporate. Which feels perfect for this book which is all about memory and time and trying not to forget and learning to remember and just being in the experience rather than chronicling it for a later date.

Each page had a sentence that just blew me away. The prose is sparse and powerful. Each page takes on an almost skeletal beauty, getting to the bare bones of who we are, who we think we are. It’s an elegant meditation on the brutal beauty of time and memory.

2 sentences I love (hard to pick just 2 but here you go):

The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments—an inability to accept life as ongoing.

“We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Okoloma was one of my greatest childhood friends.

This is a modified version of a TEDTalk she gave in December of 2012. I read it and immediately bought two more to put in my daughters’ stocking this Christmas. It’s a book we all should read because we should all be feminists. It’s a book that reminds us that though we are all human beings “…there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman.” And those particular things need to be acknowledged, seen and heard so they can be changed.

A sentence I love: Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problems of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded.

“Mr. Ives’ Christmas” a novel by Oscar Hijuelos

Years ago, in the 1950s, as a young man working for a Madison Avenue advertising agency, Ives always looked forward to the holiday season and would head out during his lunch hours, visiting churches, to think and meditate, and, if he was lucky, to hear the choirs as they practiced their hymns and sacred songs.

A friend recommended this book years and years ago. I bought it back then and it has sat on my bookshelves until this holiday season when I found it and felt compelled to finally read it.

It was the perfect antidote to the stress I’ve been feeling over the state of the world. I was able to drop into another world each time I picked it up. Not that it was a thoroughly happy world. No, it was not at all. It is about life and death and loss and grief. But something about the writing, the story, the characters was a much needed balm to my battered soul. I found myself tearing up and feeling a particular reverence for the beauty of the world, no matter what state it is in.

A sentence I love: Then there were the swirls of green wire and Christmas lights, those that tipped over and bubbled, those whose glowing filaments pirouetted like ballerinas, those whose collars resembled cherry necklaces—those lights entangled or cleverly strung, adorning store windows, twinkling with benevolence, and, it seemed to Ives, nearly breathing, like everything else in the world.

“Love Warrior” a memoir by Glennon Doyle Melton

It’s almost time. My father and I stand at the edge of a long white carpet, laid just this morning over the freshly cut grass.

Maybe it was the holidays or end of the year emotions but these last two books I read this year, though totally different in tone and subject, really touched my heart. I felt incredibly moved by both stories, feeling more connected to the world that I had been hovering over since the election, distancing myself from it. Both of these stories show people who faced the unthinkable and came out the other side.

Melton’s memoir dives deep into the shadows of what it means to be human and flawed. She bravely peels back the layers of herself and her marriage. She is honest and raw and vulnerable and in doing so, she gives the reader lucky enough to read her words to believe it’s okay if they allow themselves to be honest, raw and vulnerable, too.

A sentence I love: At our cores, we are our tender selves peeking out at a world of shiny representatives, so shame has been layered on top of our pain. We’re suffocating beneath all the layers.

The Practice of Core Desired Feelings

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I am a huge fan of using Core Desired Feelings to set intentions for the new year rather than resolutions that are doomed to be broken within a month—if that. If you haven’t checked out “The Desire Map” by Danielle Laporte, I highly suggest you do. It’s a game changer.

This year my core desired feelings are: Awake, Vibrant and Courageous.

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Awake: This is such a critical one for me that I will be doing a separate post about it soon. I will awaken to my strengths and weaknesses, to my light and my shadow.To what is happening in the world locally, statewide, nationwide and worldwide. No more looking the other way, assuming that I won’t be personally impacted in my own little privileged bubble. I will awaken too what is happening in my body,mind and emotional and energetic bodies at any given moment. I will awaken to what I desire, what I need, what I need to give and what I need to receive. No more walk-in around with my eyes closed, head turned or numbed out to my feeling say what Glennon Doyle Melton calls my “easy buttons.” For me that are wine, sugar, mindless social media, TV, shopping. Awaken to all of who I am, to all of the world has to offer.

Vibrant: Feeling healthy, energetic. Again, not hiding behind my easy buttons. Allowing myself to shine and sparkle and saying no to anything or anyone who tries to dim my brightness.

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Image found via Pinterest.

Courage: I love that courage has its root in the word for “heart.” To me, it mean living, acting and moving from the true space of my heart, Speaking up when I need to. Using my voice politically. Writing the truth as I know it, as I experience it. Being uncomfortable or afraid but staying present and taking action anyway—going to new places, making that phone call, having that difficult conversation with someone or myself. It means being what Brené Brown calls “wholehearted.”

I created the image at the top of my core desired feeling to remind me daily of how I want to feel, then every choice I make is filtered through those feelings. I put it as the screen saver on my phone, printed it out and hung it in my office, in my yoga room.

How do you enter the new year? How do you want to feel? Feel free to leave a comment or a link to your post.

Happy New Year!

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Image found via Pinterest.