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.”

 

A Few Ideas to Get You Writing

I’m a writer. Yet during this coronavirus shut-down, I don’t find myself writing much about the immediate world around me.

Instead, I’m writing about my life with an invisible disability; writing that will eventually become my memoir-in-essays.

I’m writing in response to calls for submissions.

But the bottom line is, I’m writing.

And I’m also reading.

I recently finished Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.

Whether you’re a writer, or someone like my dad who, during this unprecedented time has begun keeping a journal for the first time in his life (he jots down a couple of sentences about each day), here are a few writing prompts from Ms. Goldberg’s book I’d like to share with you this week:

“What have you waited a long time for?”

“What do you no longer have?”

“What I can’t live without – “

“Where did you always want to go but didn’t?”

“Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged. What is it you love and are willing to give to the page? It’s why we write memoir, not to immortalize but to surrender ourselves.”

 

Connecting With ‘The Pretty One’

The latest book on my “just read” list is Keah Brown’s The Pretty One. 

I first saw the book at Target and was immediately intrigued by the author’s smile and subtitle – “On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons To Fall In Love With Me.”

Keah Brown and I are different.

She is in her twenties; I am in my forties.

She is black; I am white.

Her disability is visible; mine is invisible.

However, her book proves a very common theme – the more specific you can get in your writing, the more you’ll find it relates to so many different people. You don’t have to be like Keah Brown to read this book. In fact, maybe it’s better if you’re not. Because then you’re forced to go along with Ms. Brown for this ride; to get a sense of what it is like when most of the movies you enjoy watching don’t feature a character that looks like you. (Although, like Ms. Brown and her sister, many of my friends did refer to my younger sister as the “pretty one.”)

Here are a few takeaways I’d like to share with you this week:

“The loss of control is where the true manifestation of my anxiety begins: the fact that you’re put under and you have no idea what is being done to your body, but you lead with the hope that it is the right thing, as strangers cut into your body in an effort to make it better. The reality is that I frequently cut myself open in the figurative sense when I share bits of myself with readers and audiences, but the idea of being cut open in real life will never not worry me despite the many experiences I have had.” 

“The pain is still there when it wants to be. The pain is one of the factors of disability that I cannot control. All I can do is try my best to take back the narrative about what living with disabilities is like.”  

“I like that my journey has not been easy, because then I would not have my stories to tell. Getting to that place of thought was hard, but so much of my life makes sense in these terms.”

“Imagine if we gave ourselves the same sort of love, attention, and understanding we give the people we love. If we allowed our vulnerability to fuel us to be better people, to say and do more, to feel in and navigate a world that champions tears as much as it does strength, to see tears and crying as signs of strength, even.” 

“I have always believed it is imperative that we learn from the experiences and histories of other people to better understand each other and ourselves.”

 

Finding Parts of Myself on the Page

There were so many parts of Mary Laura Philpott’s collection of essays, I Miss You When I Blink, that felt like she wasn’t writing about her life, but mine.

That’s part of what makes a good book. You get lost in the story. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Whether it’s based in the past or the present, or even the future.

And I got lost in this story. I saw myself on page after page. At times it was unsettling. At times it was reassuring.

“When you internalize what you believe to be someone else’s opinion of you, it becomes your opinion of you.” 

“If you’re twenty-three and twenty-one and you tell me you’ve just gotten engaged, I will tell you that you’re insane and too young, because when I look at twenty-one- and twenty-three-year-olds now, they look like babies. But at the time, when I was twenty-one, I could not foresee any reason not to marry him. I pictured the timeline of my life ahead of me – inasmuch as a twenty-one-year-old can look at her future life, which is to say in hazy, imaginary terms – and saw no circumstance in which I’d want not to be married to him.”

(Side note to my readers – when my husband and I were married, he had just turned 23, I was a few weeks shy of turning 23.)

“I felt like vapor in need of a shape to contain me. Who was I if I wasn’t that person busy with a hundred tasks and a dozen phone calls to return every day? Who was I if no one needed me to make their lunch anymore? And what good was I – what quantifiable measurement could be there of my worth – without these value systems to calculate it?
These questions didn’t excite me. They terrified me.”

“That’s one of the strange things about life: Even when we know how much worse it could be, everyday pains are still pains.”

“But one person’s more-sad doesn’t cancel out another person’s less-sad. The fact that an earthquake took out a whole city block doesn’t make it hurt less when you trip and snap your ankle.”

“You wish you could take a break from carrying everything. It’s all so heavy. You are so fucking tired.”

“What I can say is that my early forties are ticking by at an alarming rate. The idea of making my days count makes me feel like I’m not wasting them.”

“Children hold you accountable on their own. They keep a tally, and they remind you. There’s no dodging these little accountability officers. They report for duty – and report on my duties – every day.”

“But maybe the trick isn’t sticking everything out. The trick is quitting the right thing at the right time. The trick is understanding that saying, ‘No, thank you’ to something you’re expected to accept isn’t failure. It’s a whole other level of success.”

A Promise To Myself

Today is generally the day when many people state their new year’s resolutions. Grand plans for dreams, goals, and aspirations.

I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to state my intention to continue working on my memoir. I’m going to promise myself that I will not give up on sharing my story. 

For my fellow writers out there, I highly recommend Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. This collection is such an inspiration, providing insight into how different writers took something hard/terrible/horrific and used it to create something beautiful/meaningful/relevant.

Here are a few passages I’d like to share with you:

“The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself in a new way. I hardly know what I think until I write. The therapy is one way of sort of processing things. But it’s only in writing about some of these things that we discover and understand the metaphors of our experience that give our life meaning. Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.” – Sue William Silverman

“I was a writer, and then this big thing happened in my family. And the way that I tend to try to understand things is through stories – both things that I write and things that I read. That’s the deepest way I know of expressing something inexpressible.” – Joan Wickersham

“You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it.” – Suszanne Strempek Shea

“It really becomes memoir, though, when you open up space for others to enter – when it becomes about more than you, or your family, or your own personal feelings.” – Edwidge Danticat

“Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.” – Abigail Thomas

 

Why a Roundabout Path Is More Than Okay

From fourth grade until about my junior year of high school, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I proudly answered “Astronaut.” 

My goal changed. During high school, I took a class called World of Education. We spent four days a week, about two hours a day, assisting in a local elementary school classroom. That’s when I fell in love with teaching. And that’s when I changed my career goal.

That’s not how it worked for Leland Melvin. 

Leland Melvin isn’t like most astronauts. 

He didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut.

In fact, he’s the only astronaut who was also drafted by the NFL. 

He has had a variety of different experiences, and set-backs along the way, but still maintains a positive attitude and a desire to encourage others to reach for their dreams. You can read more about him in his memoir Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances. 

From a writer’s perspective, I didn’t particularly enjoy the book. Certain parts felt like they were missing something – a lack of introspection, personal reaction, and depth. 

From a reader’s perspective, the part of the story that stands out most to me is the circuitous path Mr. Melvin took to becoming an astronaut. In fact, he had never really thought of “astronaut” as a career possibility. 

It’s an important reminder, for me, and an important lesson to share with my son.

We don’t always know what path our lives will take. 

You don’t have to travel straight from point A to point B. It’s okay to take detours, to go in circles, to lose your place and start again.

Because you just may wind up among the stars.

An Essay Collection for the Panini Generation

Do you remember the “Cathy” comics?

The famous comic strip “ran in newspapers 365 days a year from 1976 to 2010.” Now, the creator of Cathy has written a book. And it was her title, Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, that first caught my attention.

I read through this collection of essays and while I didn’t enjoy them all, I did find several to be both amusing and relatable. 

This week, I’d like to share just a few of the “stand-out bits” that resonated with me.

From the essay titled “The Build-A-Boob Workshop”: 

Yesterday, the Build-A-Bear Workshop. Today, the Build-A-Boob Workshop.” 

(You’ll have to read the entire essay. It’s entertaining and rings oh-so-true!)

 

From the essay titled “Infidelity”:

“I woke up with the exhilarating urge to cheat on my Fitbit fitness tracker.”  

(Which made me think about my own personal essay about “breaking up” with my Fitbit. You can click here to read it.)

 

And the one that just screamed “Wendy,” from the essay titled “I’m Flunking Retirement”:

“They call it the ‘sandwich generation,’ but it seems much more squashed than that. More like the ‘panini generation.’ I feel absolutely flattened some days by the pressure to be everything to everyone, including myself.”