Charming Notes

It wasn’t my idea. 

I got it from Carolyn See and her fantastic book Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. I’ve read this book several times, and each time, I find something new that touches me. Each time, I also laugh out loud.)

Here’s what Carolyn See said in Chapter 4 – Charming Notes:

“…you write one charming note to a novelist, an editor, a journalist, a poet, a sculptor, even an agent whose professional work or reputation you admire, five days a week, for the rest of your life. Then after you write the note, you address it, put a stamp on it, and mail it out. These notes are like paper airplanes sailing around the world, and they accomplish a number of things at once.

“They salute the writer (or editor or agent in question). They say to him or her: Your work is good and admirable! You’re not laboring in a vacuum. There are people out in the world who know what you do and respect it.

“The notes are also saying: I exist, too. In the same world as you. Isn’t that amazing? They can also say: Want to play?”

I don’t write “charming notes” five days a week. But I do make an effort to contact a writer and let him/her know their words touched me. Sometimes, I look up their website and fill out the “contact me form.” Sometimes, I write them an email. Now that I’m on Instagram (@wendykennar), sometimes I comment on one of their photos related to what I just read. 

Sometimes I hear back — a simple “thank you,” a longer, several-line email. 

And sometimes, I receive no reply. But that’s okay.

Because I know I wrote the notes, and I like to think my “charming notes-paper airplanes” are out in the world, flying about, spreading bits of goodness and positivity. 

And that’s enough for me.

I’m Proud My Son Said He Didn’t Miss Me

“As Ryan pierced a slice of cucumber and pushed it around the puddle of French dressing forming at the bottom of his bowl, he said, ‘This is the first time I didn’t miss you when I went back to school.’

I smiled. I knew exactly what he meant.

No parent really wants to hear they’re not missed, but I also knew the larger significance of Ryan’s words. I realized the importance of his statement.”

I’m thrilled to share my personal essay, “I’m Proud My Son Said He Didn’t Miss Me” was recently published on Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

Click here to read the essay in its entirety.

Between Two Kingdoms

Sometimes you read a book, and long after you’ve finished it, and read the acknowledgements, and re-visited the author’s note at the beginning, the book stays with you.

You can’t seem to get the author’s voice and story out of your head.

That’s what happened with me and Suleika Jaouad’s memoir Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted.

While the specifics of Ms. Jaouad’s life vary greatly from mine — her travels, her leukemia diagnosis, her epic road trip — so much of what she wrote really touched me. So much so, that my library copy is full of sticky notes.

Allow me to share some of these passages with you:

“How do you react to a cancer diagnosis at age twenty-two?
Do you break down in sobs?
Do you faint, or scream?
In that moment, a feeling flooded through my body, unexpected and perverse: relief. After the bewildering months of misdiagnosis, I finally had an explanation for my itch, for my mouth sores, for my unraveling. I wasn’t a hypochondriac, after all, making up symptoms.”

“While my medical team was intent on saving my life, preserving my chance to be a mother someday hadn’t seemed to be on their radar. It was my first indication that, no matter how brilliant and compassionate my doctors might be, I would have to be proactive and learn to advocate for myself.”

“I understood now why so many writers and artists, while in the thick of illness, became memoirists. It provided a sense of control, a way to reshape your circumstances on your own terms, in your own words.”

“We were both forging unlikely careers: Melissa painted self-portraits from bed; I wrote self-portraits from bed. Watercolors and words were the drugs we preferred for our pain. We were learning that sometimes the only way to endure suffering is to transform it into art.”

“As a patient, there was pressure to perform, to be someone who suffers well, to act with heroism, and to put on a stoic façade all the time.”

“To be a patient is to relinquish control — to your medical team and their decisions, to your body and its unscheduled breakdowns.”

“I used to think healing meant ridding the body and the heart of anything that hurt. It meant putting your pain behind you, leaving it in the past. But I’m learning that’s not how it works. Healing is figuring out how to coexist with the pain that will always live inside of you, without pretending it isn’t there or allowing it to hijack your day. It is learning to confront ghosts and to carry what lingers. It is learning to embrace the people I love now instead of protecting against a future in which I am gutted by their loss.”

In Celebration of National Book Month

Missing from the photo – March’s book (I read a library copy) and June’s book (Another library copy, though I plan to buy it and add it to my almost-full bookcase.)

October.

Time for pumpkin-flavored everything it seems. 

Time for small bite-sized candy bars. 

And time to talk about books.

Because October is also National Book Month.

I tried to think about how to commemorate the month. So in honor of National Book Month, I’m taking a look back at the books I have read during 2021. I’m sharing one stand-out book from each month. Maybe you’ll find yourself adding to your “want-to-read” list. 

Or maybe you’ll find yourself adding to your holiday gift list. Because October also means the holiday season is just around the corner.

January:

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

I’ve read this book more than once. It’s that good. From a reader’s standpoint, and a writer’s standpoint, I’m just in awe.

February:

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

A true test that I really enjoyed a book? When I order my own copy after reading a library copy. And that’s what happened with this novel. I just found myself really caring for these characters. And, it’s another good reminder that people are often not what they seem at first glance. You can’t know what someone is really dealing with just by looking at them.

March:

How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts

For most of my childhood, actually until my junior year of high school, my career goal was to become an astronaut. And all these years later, I’m still incredibly curious and interested in learning about astronauts’ lives. This isn’t a dry memoir at all. You’ll find lots of humor and fun observations.  

April:

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Such a delight to read about these two authors and go along on this journey with them. This was my first novel by Ms. Henry, but certainly not my last. (People We Meet on Vacation was published in May and is on my ever-growing want-to-read list.)

May:

Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas by Alexi Pappas

I was reading a copy of Bravey I had borrowed from the library. But, I found I was putting sticky notes on so many pages, that I ordered my own copy before I had even finished reading this powerful memoir. Honest, raw, touching. 

June:

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

Mixed within this sweet, original love story are some serious topics – emotional abuse, wrongful incarceration. It’s a story I didn’t want to end. And now I’ve added Ms. O’Leary’s other novels (The Switch, The Road Trip) onto my want-to-read list.

July:

Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Chronic Illness: How to Stay Sane and Live One Step Ahead of Your Symptoms by Ilana Jacqueline

When a patient is given a chronic illness diagnosis, they should also be given this book. It’s an important, valuable resource that would have been so helpful when I first became ill.

August:

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Wow! This book is everything — heartbreaking, funny, touching, devastating, enlightening. I didn’t realize how little I knew about South Africa and Apartheid. Just an incredible read. 

September:

Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott

There is no one quite like Anne Lamott. It’s that rare combination of what she says and how she says it. She writes with such warmth and honesty about the big things (climate change) and the small things (like pants not fitting).

October:

I’m still reading the first book of October. Stay tuned!

Readers, have you read any books that blew you away? That touched you? That made you smile? That you can’t stop telling your friends about? Please, do share. 

Coffee and Me

I’m not a coffee drinker. I’m a blended mocha (on warm days) and a cafe mocha (on cool days) drinker. 

Yet several years ago, while waiting at my local Coffee Bean, I took a look at their shelves displaying bags of coffee and realized my personality was written on those shelf tags. I can be succinctly summed up using the same adjectives that describe international coffee beans.

Since today, September 29th is National Coffee Day, I thought I would re-visit this post. Just keep in mind, these were the descriptors used a few years ago for the bags of coffee sold at Coffee Bean. While those terms may be different now, I think they still apply to me.

  1. Light and subtle.  I hope I am subtle in many ways including my sarcasm and my fragrances. Generally, I think less is more on both counts.  
  2. Light and distinctive.  You won’t see me wearing any bright red lipstick or blue eyeshadow or black nail polish. I prefer lighter hues. However, I strive to be distinctive. I really don’t mind standing-out and not looking like everyone else walking in and out of Coffee Bean. Which is when you should take a look at my jewelry. Rings on eight of my ten fingers. Earrings and necklace to match the day’s outfit. Three bracelets, a watch, and my anklet complete the ensemble.
  3. Medium and smooth.  I am of medium height at 5’6”. I achieve smoothness, hopefully, by my daily application of body lotion but also I hope I’m smooth (as in fairly easy-going) and not prickly (as in irritable or disagreeable). 
  4. Dark and distinctive.  I am not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California girl. I am a brown-haired, brown-eyed California girl. And while my jewelry may make the top part of me distinctive, my footwear takes care of the bottom part of me. I am a person who is all about comfort. Which means Birkenstocks and not high heels. 
  5. DecaffeinatedI pride myself on being rather level-headed, sensible, and down-to-earth. I am not overly hyper or overly loud. Which is why during my teaching years, I was told I had a calming way with my students. Those students, who threw chairs in other classes or got into fights in the previous grade level, were put in my classes. And year after year, they made me proud with their progress as they blossomed.  
  6. Flavored.  My body lotion, shampoo, and body wash are a mix of “flavors.” You’ll find scents like “country apple,” “rose water and ivy,” and “sweet pea and violet.”

(By the way – Coffee Bean is offering 25% off today on their coffee products. Details are available on their website.)

What Now?

What Now? is Ann Patchett’s book-length essay which is based on a commencement speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence College. 

This is one of those small gift books that are commonly given to graduates.

I’m certainly not graduating.

So, you may be wondering, why did I read this book?

Because I’m curious. Because I try to read a variety of books. Because somehow this book had made it onto my ever-growing “want-to-read” list, and because oftentimes, I do ask myself, “What now?”.

Here are a few of my favorite parts that I’d like to share with you:

“It was for me the start of a lesson that I never stop having to learn: to pay attention to the things I’ll probably never need to know, to listen carefully to the people who look as if they have nothing to teach me, to see school as something that goes on everywhere, all the time, not just in libraries but in parking lots, in airports, in trees.”

“I stare at blank pieces of paper and paragraphs and single sentences and a buzzing computer screen. Hours and hours of my day are spent with my eyes glazed over, thinking, waiting, trying to figure things out. The muse is a sweet idea, like the tooth fairy. The muse supposedly comes down like lighting and fills your fingers with the necessary voltage to type up something brilliant. But nobody ever made a living depending on a muse. The rest of us have to go out and find our inspiration, write and rewrite, stare and stare and stare until we know which way to turn.”

“It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren’t really so much about leadership. Being successful, and certainly being happy, comes from honing your skills in working with other people. For the most part we travel in groups – you’re ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody’s ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way.” 

“The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way. What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed out into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow. There’s a time in our lives when we all crave the answers. It seems terrifying not to know what’s coming next. But there is another time, a better time, when we see our lives as a series of choices, and What now represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life. It’s up to you to choose a life that will keep expanding.”

Dusk, Night, Dawn

Is there anyone quite like Anne Lamott?

Her latest book, Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage includes her answers to the questions many of us have but may be afraid to speak out loud. 

From the book jacket: “How can we recapture the confidence we once had as we stumble through the dark times that seem increasingly bleak? How can we cope as bad news piles up around us?

And within these pages, Ms. Lamott gives us answers. Glimpses into the big and small. Rays of light and hope. 

Here are just a few of the many gems I marked with sticky notes while I read:

“I told them my stories of mess and redemption, because stories can be our most reliable medicine. I told them that, yes, it was going to be really hard to turn the environment around, but that we can do hard and in fact we have done hard before — World War II, vaccines, antibiotics, antiretrovirals. We are up to this.”

“So to answer my earlier question of where on earth we begin to recover our faith in life, in the midst of so much bad news and dread, when our children’s futures are so uncertain: We start in the here and now. That’s why they call it the present. We start where our butts and feet and minds are.”

“We excel during tragedies, bringing our best selves to serve the suffering in a devastated world, nation, community, family. We keep each other company when children or pets are missing, when our last auntie or old dog dies, while waiting for prognoses. Our human response to each other’s hurt and loss is what gives me hope, along with science and modern medicine. We rise up to help the best we can, and we summon humor to amend ghastly behavior and dismal ongoing reality. Help and humor save us.”

“Friends save us, service to others save us. Books, nature, community, and music save us.”

“People like to say all sorts of stupid bumper-sticker things that aren’t true and that in fact can be shaming, such as that God never gives us more than we can handle. What a crock.” 

“It is too much. You steadfastly love and serve everyone, see people through tribulation, savor the relief, and give thanks. Then boing — a new setback. It’s like tucking an octopus into bed at night: new arms keep popping out.”

“When people know you too well, they eventually see your damage, your weirdness, carelessness, and mean streak. They see how ordinary you are after all, and that whatever it was that distinguished you in the beginning is the least of who you actually are. This will turn out to be the greatest gift we can offer another person: letting them see, every so often, beneath all the trappings and pretense to the truth of us.
But can you love me now?”

“Love will have to do, along with bright and dim memories, some that still hurt, others that we savor like Life Savers tucked away in our cheeks.” 

It’s Pain Awareness Month

(You can’t tell from this photo, but I was in a lot of pain. But it was a great day! My family and I had enjoyed a fun family outing – which included a couple of hours in the car as well as an hour-plus of walking. And, I got these beautiful sunflowers – my favorite flower! So there were lots of reasons to smile. But my leg h-u-r-t!)

September is Pain Awareness Month.

It’s gotten to the point where I refuse to answer a nurse when he/she asks me, “What’s your pain level like on a scale of 1-10?”. (Just so you know, I don’t ignore the nurse. I simply explain I can no longer answer that question.)

I used to really try to answer. I’d look at the range of faces and short descriptions under the illustrations and try to figure out where I fit on that scale. 

But now I realize there’s no point. My pain level can change from day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute. 

And sometimes, many times, my pain level is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how much pain I’m in. If it’s 3:00 on a weekday, then that means I need to pick up my son from school – regardless of how I feel. It’s non-negotiable. 

I rarely let pain stop me from doing my daily activities. Because if I did, I wouldn’t do anything most days — at least lately. (The pain has been off-the-charts the last few weeks which means more doctors appointments and changes to my medications.)

But also, I wonder what long-term pain does to me — my body and my mind? I’ve been dealing with UCTD since 2010 (even though I didn’t know it was until my diagnosis in 2011). Ten years of pain has to warp your perception of discomfort. A “5” on my scale, I’m sure would be at least a “9” on my husband’s scale. (This may be a very bad generalization, but at least when it comes to my dad and my husband, they are not as pain tolerant as my mom or I.)

Here’s the other thing about pain. Everyone experiences it. In some way, shape, or form, everyone is dealing with something painful. 

When you stop and think about it, that’s a powerful reminder to pause and really try to remember to treat others with compassion and kindness and patience. 

Because you never know what someone is dealing with simply by looking at them.

Born a Crime

Confession – I read Trevor Noah’s memoir as much for his story as well as a way for me to study memoir structure. It’s something I am incredibly curious about – how do other authors determine how to best organize their memoir? It’s something I’m trying to figure out as I write my memoir. 

But after reading Mr. Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, I am just in awe.

And not just by the structure of Mr. Noah’s book, including the historical context for his childhood. Not just for giving me a peek into a world, a lifestyle, a culture I had limited knowledge of. 

I’m also in awe of Mr. Noah. And his powerhouse mother. 

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. (A few friends have told me they enjoyed the audio version which is read by Mr. Noah.)

This week, please allow me to share with you parts that really stood out to me, parts that made me take notice and grab a sticky note.

“I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, which was awkward because I was raised in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family.” 

“In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix – and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.” 

“Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations — I was born a crime.”

“As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn’t know any of it had to do with ‘race.’ I didn’t know what race was.”

“That, and  so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” 

“My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid — not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” 

“But I was blessed with another trait I inherited from my mother: her ability to forget the pain in life. I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don’t hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new. If you think too much about the ass-kicking your mom gave you, or the ass-kicking that life gave you, you’ll stop pushing the boundaries and breaking the rules. It’s better to take it, spend some time crying, then wake up the next day and move on.” 

“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.” 

The Black Friend

I was an elementary school teacher for twelve years. There’s an unfortunate pattern I noticed – the parents you most want to speak with, the students you most want to help – are, often, the ones you can’t reach.

Literally, can’t reach. Parents don’t return phone calls. They don’t show up to Back-to-School Night or attend parent conferences. And it’s not for lack of trying. I used to start my conferences early in the morning, stay late in the afternoon, do everything I could to work around the schedules of the families of my students. After Back-to-School Night, I even sent home a stapled package of all the handouts I had presented the night before, and a note inviting families to come and visit the classroom at a more convenient time.

I kept thinking about all that when I read Frederick Joseph’s powerful book The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person.

I don’t think I’m the target audience except that I am a white person. My husband is Black. Our son is bi-racial. Yet I acknowledge my own lack of information, lack of understanding. Just because my husband is Black doesn’t mean I have nothing to learn. 

So I read the book. At times it was heartbreaking. At times I just couldn’t believe the things Mr. Joseph heard and experienced. The book is written in a rather conversational style and each chapter ends with a discussion the author had with a different artist or activist.  

The people who most need to read this book, unfortunately, probably won’t.

However, that’s why this book, this powerful tool, should be used in classrooms (middle school and up). 

The problems don’t just go away. The wrongs don’t just get righted. 

They need to be confronted.