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. 

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.” 

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. 

I’ll Be Seeing You

I have a stack of Elizabeth Berg novels on my bookcase. Her non-fiction book, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True, is on my shelf as well. I have read it more than once, and it has multiple sticky notes in it.

Last year, her memoir I’ll Be Seeing You was published and it was part of my haul from my first in-person visit to a public library. (In case you missed it, you can read about it here.) 

Ms. Berg writes about her parents — their love, their marriage, their aging process, their need to move from a home they loved. 

It was an honest, beautiful, tender read. 

One she was hesitant to write and share with the public. 

“But all that’s happening with my parents now: Is it unfair to publish my thoughts about it, to make it available to anyone who cares to have a look? Would I want someone writing about me losing my facilities? The answer is I don’t know. But I think if it served a larger purpose, I wouldn’t mind.” 

This week, I’d like to share just a few passages that moved me:

“Mostly, I feel grateful to be the age that I am now. You lose some things, growing older, but you gain other, more important things:  tolerance, gratitude, perspective, the unexpected pleasure in doing things more slowly. It’s not a bad trade, except that you are increasingly aware that your number will be up sooner rather than later.”  

“But the women in my group are writers, with an innate understanding of what art demands, requires, and does. They, too, have a reflexive need to document everything that happens to them or to others close to them, one way or another.”

“Yes, life is a minefield at any age. Sometimes we feel pretty certain that we know what’s coming. But really, we never do. We just walk on. We have to. If we’re smart, we count our blessings between the darker surprises. And hope for a fair balance. When I look at my parents’ lives, I know they were lucky. And still are.”

Books, Books, and More Books

Last week, I did something I haven’t done since early 2020.

I went inside my public library.

During the pandemic, I was lucky enough to still be checking out books from my library, but through a system of reserving specific titles and arranging a day and time to pick them up.

But the library is open again. Open for leisurely browsing. For stocking up. For being in awe of the sheer number of books I have yet to read.

I first thought I’d go into the library with no plans. Just me, my library card, and my empty tote bag. And I’d stroll among the shelves, picking up books, reading the summaries on the back cover, and bringing home as many books as I wanted. (Or as many as I could carry in my bag.)

But then that thought made me feel a bit overwhelmed. There is such a thing as too much choice. 

So I handled the visit to the library the same way I handle my grocery shopping.

It’s considered foolish to grocery shop on an empty stomach. I thought the same rule should apply to me in a library. I was hungry for books. For the freedom to walk in and pick up books because something — a cover, a title — caught my eye. 

So I made a list.

I went online and accessed the library’s catalog. And wrote down the call numbers for books that had been on my “want-to-read” list. I limited myself to eight books. (I’m not sure how I settled on eight, except that ten seemed too many, and eight seemed close enough to ten.)

I went to the library and made my way around the shelves, gathering my books, until my bag was heavier than I expected (I didn’t realize one book was a hardcover and over 400 pages long). 

And I came home happy. With eight books including memoir (Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood), poetry (Mary Oliver’s Devotions), and fiction (Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over) to name a few.

Libraries are open again, and in case you couldn’t tell, I was smiling under my mask.

(The public library still requires patrons to wear masks in consideration of the younger readers who don’t yet have access to a vaccine.)

Trying To Be a “Bravey”

A couple of confessions.

First, I had no knowledge of Alexi Pappas until recently.

Second, I don’t remember how I first learned about Alexi Pappas and her memoir Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas

But I’m so glad I did.

I borrowed a copy from the library, but it’s full of so many sticky notes that I had to order my own copy. And then not only will my copy have sticky notes, but I’ll go ahead and highlight passages. 

Alexi and I are very different. She’s an Olympian, for crying out loud. (And a filmmaker, an actress, and a writer.) Yet, her words resonated with me and touched me so strongly. 

This week I’d like to share with you some of my favorite passages.

“It was the first time I used the word bravey, and it stuck. It became a label for a mini-movement, a self-identifier for those who are willing to chase their dreams even though it can be intimidating and scary. It celebrates the choice to pursue a goal and even relishes the pain that comes with effort. There is nobility to it; it’s something to be celebrated.” 

“Imagination, at the very least, brings us joy; at the very most, it empowers us to suspend disbelief and chase the impossible. Imagining things into existence is a superpower.”

“Asking for help is a superpower anyone can have but only some people use. It is brave to ask for help.”

“You have to believe you are deserving of good surprises in life. You set yourself up for it. You walk with your eyes open enough to catch the eye of the person who will invite you in. Maybe they won’t but maybe they will. Luck can be cultivated.”

Supposed to was another phrase I couldn’t let go of — I was supposed to do this and I was supposed to do that — so I kept doing things that helped me appear normal to the outside world, but none of which would help me heal myself.” 

“That’s what being a Bravey is — you are making a conscious choice to tell yourself what you’d like to be until it becomes part of you. You choose to replace “can’t” with “maybe” by acknowledging your feelings but focusing on your actions. Your actions encompass everything from what you do with your time, to who you surround yourself with, to the words you feed your mind. To know you can do this for yourself is the most powerful thing in the world.” 

“You have to take care of yourself first. You are your own most precious resource. Everything you are in this world hinges on you facing yourself before you face the world.” 

An Astronaut’s Perspective

From the time I was in fourth grade until the time I was in eleventh grade, I had one career goal – to become an astronaut.

If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you know I never became an astronaut.  And while I loved my teaching career, I never stopped being interested in manned space exploration. So of course, I was eager to read How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts.

Mr. Virts tells the story of traveling into space, from training, to launch, to orbit, and re-entry.

The book is organized into fifty-one short chapters and includes not only one-of-a-kind observations but funny anecdotes as well.

“The space station is, in many ways, a thirteen-year-old boy’s dream. You can float around like Superman. You can eat whatever you want and your parents aren’t there to nag you. You have your own room and you close the door and nobody tells you to clean it. Best of all – no showers! For 200 days in a row!”

“It was the example of how people should work together to solve important problems, leaving petty political bickering behind. That is exactly what we did and what the space program in general has done for many decades. The vacuum of space is a harsh and unforgiving environment, and it does’t care what country you are from or what your ideology is. Unless you approach spaceflight focused only on getting the job done and working as a team, you risk dying. 

And that, my friends, is a lesson that we would do well to learn down here on our home planet.”

“I think that attitude is the key to many of our situations in life. Make the most out of your circumstances. Enjoy what you can. Learn from what you can. Suffer through what you must. And learn from it. What doesn’t kill you should make you better. If you go through life with that attitude, you will be happier and more successful than by complaining.”

“…the universe is inhospitable and cold and dark and wholly incompatible with life, with the exception of our blue planet, as far as we know. I had a new sense of thankfulness and appreciation for our home, drifting through space like a giant spaceship carrying the entirety of our species on a timeless journey. We should take care of it. There is no plan B; there is only plan A.”

And, I found it absolutely wonderful to get to the acknowledgement section at the back of the book, and find that the first people Mr. Virts chose to acknowledge were his high school English teachers! 

Grateful for Ordinary Days

These days, it’s all about perspective. 

Looking at things in a “glass-half-full” mindset.

We’re not “stuck at home.” 

We’re “safe at home.”

Which brings me to Katrina Kenison’s memoir The Gift of an Ordinary Day.

Because as much as I’d like things to be different, there is also much to celebrate and rejoice in these “ordinary days.” I don’t take for granted our family’s good fortune and good health.

This week, I’d like to share with you some of my favorite takeaways from Ms. Kenison’s memoir:

“Immersed in the physical and emotional realm of parenthood, we develop reserves of patience, imagination, and fortitude we never dreamed possible. At times, the hard work of being a mother seems in itself a spiritual practice, an opportunity for growth and self-exploration in an extraordinarily intimate world, a world in which hands are for holding, bodies for snuggling, laps for sitting.”

“How in fact life is not all about planning and shaping, but about not knowing, and being okay with that. It’s about learning to take the moment that comes and make the best of it, without any idea of what’s going to happen next.”

“Learning well doesn’t always mean scoring high. It also means acquiring the tools necessary to take on the most challenging work of all – becoming the person you are meant to be.”

“It may well be that success lies as much in our ability to behold the world before us in gratitude and wonder as it does in owning things and doing things. And it may be, too, that happiness really is a state of mind we choose for ourselves, a way of being that we cultivate from one moment to the next, rather than the result of realizing our ambitions or acquiring whatever it is we think we most desire.”

“That we can’t always choose what happens to us, can’t always pick the hand we’re dealt – but we can choose our response and decide how to play the hand we have.”

“None of this was ever part of the plan, but life so rarely unfolds according to plan. Real life is just where we are, in this moment, and the only mistake we’ve made so far has been not to pause long enough or often enough to realize that even this odd in-between time is precious, fleeting, and worthy of our attention.”

“That there is no such thing as a charmed life, not for any of us, no matter where we live or how mindfully we attend to the tasks at hand. But there are charmed moments, all the time, in every life and in every day, if we are only awake enough to appreciate them.”

“Ordinary days. The days in which nothing momentous happens, no great victories are won, no huge disappointments suffered, no milestones achieved. Most of our lives are made up of days just like this – if we’re lucky, that is, and the seas of fate are calm. Days that are not particularly memorable, but that are nonetheless the only days we have.”