#readingwednesday: small wonder

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For someone who reads and writes as much as I do, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that most of the time, when someone asks me who my favorite author is, I don’t have an immediate answer.

There are lots of authors I enjoy, even some whose works I run out to buy as soon as a new one hits the shelves–Jhumpa Lahiri, Lynn Flewelling, Margaret Atwood. And then there are the authors who are no longer with us or no longer writing–Octavia E. Butler, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett. But it’s hard for me to pick a favorite.

Barbara Kingsolver is the favorite author I always forget I have.

“What you hold in your hands right now, beneath these words, is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, a place.”

I read my first Kingsolver novel, The Bean Trees–which was also Kingsolver’s first novel, written in 1988–my sophomore year of high school, when it was assigned reading for my honors English class. It was one of the more enjoyable books we read that year, a spark of rough-spun, heartland humanity in a class full of Edith Wharton and Earnest Hemingway. I liked just about the whole thing, from the characters to the themes to the earnest relationships between the characters, but I was a busy overachiever in high school, so I wrote the requisite essays, gave my school-issued copy of the book back to my teacher, and moved on to the next project. The Bean Trees was fun, but I didn’t have time to mull over it.

I didn’t read more Kingsolver until college, when I picked up a copy of Prodigal Summer at a library book sale with my mother. I read it outside on the great lawn when I got back to school, and as I read, realized that Kingsolver novels are meant to be read outside–Kingsolver is a biologist by education, and her books hum and vibrate with an organic, natural energy that sounds like rustling trees and the flutter of wings. Since that reading, out on the lawn with the buzz of college energy around me and the smell of new grass clinging to my skin, I’ve made it a point to re-read Prodigal Summer each year, sometime between spring and summer, while the world is bright with life and birth. I’ve added a few more of her novels to my shelf, too–Poisonwood BiblePigs in Heaven, and my very on copy of that first foray into her writing, The Bean Trees.

“Sometimes I’ve survived anger only one minute at a time, by saying to myself again and again that the best kind of revenge is some kind of life beyond this, some kind of goodness. And I can lay no claim to goodness until I can prove that mean people have not made me mean.”

This was my first full reading of Small Wonder, a collection of essays Kingsolver published in 2002. I gave it a try last year, but life was busy and overwhelming, and I put it away in favor of easier, more relaxing reads. This time around, I read it mornings and evenings during my commute, with nature sounds playing through my earbuds, and was actually able to enjoy it.

Kingsolver includes over twenty essays in this book, with topics ranging from gardening to motherhood to sexuality to writing to patriotism to environmentalism, and just about anything in between. She writes with an organic sort of energy that makes the words vibrate on the page, but her words are heartfelt, too, simultaneously heavy with the weight of her experiences and light with the strength of her idealism. Her essays range from exploratory to persuasive to almost open letter formats, and their target audiences almost seem to vary. But even though they can be a bit self-indulgent at times–and what writer doesn’t get a little self-indulgent at times? not this one, that’s for sure–they have a warmth that, at least for me, overcomes the occasional eye-rolling moment. Small Wonder will, almost certainly, join Prodigal Summer for an annual re-read.

“Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders, where they grow.”

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#readingwednesday: the buddha in the attick

Happy Women’s History (Herstory?) Month, y’all! Which actually started last week, but I was a mess last week, so here we are.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a pretty distinct trend in my reading choices–more specifically, that I’ve been picking up more and more books by women, and fewer and fewer books written by men. To be fully honest, this hasn’t been an accident. Bestseller lists tend to trend white and straight and male, and after so many years of reading stories about white dudes doing stuff and having feelings about it, I’ve been ready for–and have embraced–something new. In 2015, ignoring the slew of angry internet commenters crying about reverse racism and sexism , I joined a number of other readers in making a pledge to focus my reading on books written by queer authors, female authors, and authors of color, and found myself having a completely new experience. This Women’s History Month, I wanted to put my intersectional feminist money (or at least my intersectional feminist library card) where my intersectional feminist mouth is, and explore stories written by queer women, trans women, disabled women, women of color–all of the women whose stories are silenced even more than those of cis straight white women, whose stories receive plenty of silencing of their own. Some of the books I’ve already read this year have given me lessons in checking my privilege and listening to voices more marginalized than mine , and I find myself almost looking forward to that discomfort, because I know that discomfort is the gateway to learning, and more importantly, to unlearning the messages of power and historical erasure that I’ve spent my young adulthood trying to dismantle and recover.

I checked out Bustle’s 2016 reading challenge for ideas and hit the library, and from the first book I’ve cracked open, I’m already glad that this was the choice I made. There is just something different, I’ve found, about reading a book written from the perspective of someone who has been marginalized, even if the book itself has nothing to do with that experience. Something about moving through the world with the knowledge that this world isn’t designed for your comfort and your experience changes the way the words sit on the page, gives them a different sort of weight.

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Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is a book like this.  This is Otsuka’s second novel, and I read the first, When the Emperor was Divine, for an undergraduate class about Asian American women and literature. Whereas When the Emperor was Divine is more of a traditional novel, The Buddha in the Attic reads more like an epic poem. There are no real characters to speak of; we don’t learn the names of the women whose pain and fear and anger and heartbreak spills across the pages. The book follows a group of Japanese picture brides, the generation of women brought from Japan to San Francisco with pictures of their new husbands, whom they had never met in person, clutched in their hands, through their arrival in San Francisco, their forced assimilation into a culture that doesn’t welcome them, their experiences of sex, of childbirth, of motherhood, all achingly woven together through the eight sections of the novel.

Etsuko was given the name Esther by her teacher, Mr. Slater, on her first day of school. “It’s his mother’s name,” she explained. To which we replied, “So is yours.”

Told in first-person plural–a distinctly weird point of view that, I’ll be honest, kind of turned me off at first, but I stuck with it–the book draws you in by folding you into the group of women on the boat. From the first line, On the boat we were mostly virgins, Otsuka sets a scene not through picturesque imagery or flowery text but through simplicity and the immediate establishment of community and identity. This we is the binding force of the novel, and though some of us do this and some of us do that, there is always the we that pulls the group back together. This plural identity, the we, isn’t just the group of women in the story, but the we of these women in history, as the readers watch the book draw closer and closer to the age of World War II, to Pearl Harbor, to internment camps. The we is insular, it’s protective, it is we, as opposed to them.

The storytelling of we is powerful, more powerful than I expected when I started the book. So often we need an I to focus on in a story, a titular character or protagonist to anchor ourselves into a narrative. Otsuka pushes back against this construct and weaves us a story of many lives, many women, creating a community narrative of loss, homesickness, isolation, family, identity, and pain.

It would be autumn, and our fathers would be out threshing in the fields. We would walk through the mulberry groves, past the big loquat tree and the old lotus pond, where we used to catch tadpoles in the spring. Our dogs would come running up to us. Our neighbours would wave. Our mothers would be sitting by the well with their sleeves tied up, washing the evening’s rice. And when they saw us they would just stand up and stare. “Little girl,” they would say to us, “where in the world have you been?”

I’ve finished my first reading of this book, which unfortunately was split into two chunks, and I’ve been told that to get the full experience of this novella, it should be read straight through in one sitting. Reading the introductory chapter again in preparation to write this post, it’s easy to understand why. Otsuka’s writing has a poetic, almost lyrical quality to it, which almost makes you want to read the text out loud, or have it read to you. It gives the book a sense of an oral history, of a generation of women and girls crossing an ocean to what they believed would be a land of opportunity and promise and joyful life.

When I picked up this book, I was hoping for a story that would pull me into Women’s History Month with a story that would pull me into a history that wasn’t my own, to let me connect to women before me whose stories I wasn’t told in school or by my mother or grandmothers or aunts.

The Buddha in the Attic was that story and more.

And after a while we notice ourselves speaking of them more and more in the past tense. Some days we forget they were ever with us, although late at night they often surface, unexpectedly, in our dreams…And in the morning, when we wake, try as might to hang on to them, they do not linger long in our dreams…All we know is that the Japanese are out there somewhere, in one place or another, and we shall probably not meet them again in this world.

#readingwednesday: pretty little mistakes

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I was never really into “choose your own adventure” books as a kid. I always liked the idea, they were cute and seemed like a fun concept, but the execution just never seemed to live up to what I wanted the story to look like in my head.

Sometime in high school or college (probably college, but I smuggled some pretty raunchy novels into my house in high school–sorry, mom), I picked up Pretty Little Mistakes. Heather McElhatton’s novel marketed itself as a “choose your own adventure” book for adults. Given that this was back in the days of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the cover caught my eye (definitely do judge books by their covers, kids!), I flipped open to give it a shot, hoping it would be more interesting than the ones that floated around my middle school library.

Fifteen minutes later, my novelized self had gone from a high school student deciding whether or not to go to college to a member of a secret cartel of nun assassins in Rome. Hello, adventure!

I’ve carted Pretty Little Mistakes along with me from apartment to apartment over the years that I’ve had it, and every now and then, I take it off the shelf for a bit of bad decision-making. It’s a fun book to read when I don’t have an entire afternoon to devote to a novel but just really want to get some reading in, but it can just as easily be an entire day’s worth of fun and frivolity. The book has one beginning and one hundred and fifty possible endings, and after however many years and multiple readings of this book, I still haven’t gotten through them all. This particular week, I picked it up again because I needed a book to write about for this post and didn’t have the spoons to start one of the new novels on my to-read list, but in all honesty, I found myself as sucked in as ever. (In case you were wondering, I married my jewelry-designing female lover. The ceremony was lovely. We adopted dogs.)

I’ll be honest: as fun a read as I find this book, it’s definitely not for everyone. The title proclaims the choices in the book to be pretty, but in all honesty, a lot of them really aren’t. Some of the stories are fantastical and just plain weird, but a good chunk of them are creepy, dark, gross, or straight-up triggering, and the nature of the book is such that you really can’t “plan” for when you might find yourself face to face with, say, sexual assault or drug addiction. That being said, and as frustrating as it can be to make the “right” choice and still find your character raped or murdered or in prison, the novel does speak to the chaos of life. Sometimes you make the “good” choice and you still get the shit end of the stick. Maybe it happens a bit more often in this book than it does in real life, but let’s be real: if you wanted a book with a guaranteed happy ending, you wouldn’t be reading the sort of thing where you get to choose how your story ends.

Pretty Little Mistakes is a fun read, a ridiculous way to spend fifteen minutes or five hours, and a chance to make the kind of choices that most of us just don’t get (or wouldn’t want) to make in real life. For that, if nothing else, I’m glad I picked it up off that bookstore shelf however many years ago.

Time for me, at least, to start another life on the page. Maybe this time, I’ll try traveling in Europe.

Hopefully I don’t get pecked to death by ducks in London again, though. That ending sucked.

Now, choose your own adventure!

For more adventures in Shelly’s reading, check out my reading wednesday category.

For fun conversation, comment on this post with a story about a book that surprised, amused, or took you on an unexpected adventure!

2016 resolutions (happiness project, part 4)

I’m not actually a fan of New Year’s resolutions, which probably sounds a bit weird coming from someone who enticed you into a post promising a list of mine. But confession time: I really don’t like them. I don’t like the culture of them, I don’t like that corporations capitalize off people’s hopes to sell products and gym memberships, and I especially don’t like that so many of us buy into this shit every year even though, statistically, only about 8% of people actually keep their resolutions.

 

I spent a long time trying to decide if I wanted to make resolutions this year. I did know, immediately, what resolutions I didn’t want to make: I wasn’t touching “lose weight” or “exercise more” with a ten-foot pole (sorry, fitness bloggers, but more power to you folks!), and while I know that specificity and measurability are the keys to a good resolution, I personally tend to do better with broader categories that I can turn into measurable objectives as I adapt and figure out how to they’re going to work (aka, give myself as much wiggle room as humanly possible, because I’m a slippery eel who loves a good loophole). That said, I do like a good positively-worded goal, and as this year (or at least, 2015) became the year of my happiness project, I figured I might as well keep the momentum going by figuring out some resolutions I might actually keep.

 

So, without further ado, I present:

 

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Now with 100% more of my handwriting! And stickers!

 

  1. Walk 1 Mile Every Day

 

Confession: this one’s a bit of a freebie. I made this one “walk one mile” as opposed to “go for a walk” or “take a mile-long walk” very intentionally, because I know very, very well that as nicely intentioned as I am, there’s no way in hell I’m going to go for a walk every day (sorry, Sammi, but sometimes you don’t want to go for walks, either). That said, I do wear my Fitbit just about every day, and one mile comes out to about 2,000 steps, which even on a pretty sedentary day is pretty doable.

 

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Note: Not an average day.

 

My Fitbit step goal is currently set at the default 10,000 steps per day, though I don’t usually hit that unless I take Sammi on more than one walk (walking Sammi is usually Husband’s job). I tend to average about 6,000 to 8,000 steps a day, which gets me well over my one-mile goal. Eventually I’d like to be hitting 10,000 steps everyday, which would put me at the step goal that the American Heart Association recommends to help maintain a low risk of cardiovascular disease. But for now, walking one mile–or about 2,500 steps–every day is a goal I can hit with relative ease even on awful pain days, and seeing the distance on my tracker at more than one mile will give me an emotional boost. Which brings me to…

 

  1. Smile More Often

I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety since my teens, and since getting into a field where I’m regularly confronted with heavy emotional pain I’ve had a lot of my own issues brought right to the front of my brain. After a day of seeing back to back clients and helping them peel back layer upon layer of trauma and sadness and grief and fear and abandonment and etcetera, I often come home feeling like there’s not all that much to smile about in the world. But I’ve also started to understand over the past months that days like that are the days when I most need to look for something to smile about.

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That’s what this face is for.

 

In my last happiness project post, I wrote about rediscovering gratitude, and it’s been an ongoing project for me to sit down with my journal each night and write down a few things about the day that made me smile. In 2016, I want to take this a step further and start to seek out experiences that will give me joy. Not necessarily huge experiences, but ones that will allow happiness to settle onto me like a blanket: letting myself savor a cup of coffee over breakfast, buying nice wine and tea, reading books that make me smile even if they’re not literary masterpieces. 2016 is about smiling more, and finding time to appreciate the things that make those smiles happen.

 

  1. Watch 1 TED Talk Each Month

 

So I’m a huge nerd, which I suspect surprises absolutely none of you. One of the many things I’m a huge nerd about is learning itself, and TED Talks are a great way to spend fifteen or twenty minutes learning about something new in an interesting way. The TED website is fairly easy to use, but more often I end up getting recommendations of talks to watch from friends, old professors, or professional contacts.

 

My goal in watching TED Talks isn’t to become an expert on anything, but rather to try and explore topics I’ve been interested in but maybe haven’t found a way to learn about, and to find new ways of thinking about topics I may have dismissed or become bored by. I’ll be starting my TED adventure with this playlist later this month. Anyone feel like joining in?

 

  1. Send More “Snail Mail”

 

Guys, getting mail is awesome. I LOVE getting mail. I mean, not bills and random credit card offers, screw those, but mail mail? Real mail that someone put together for you and wrote your address on and licked and stamped and put into a mailbox for you? Guys, that is just the greatest thing in the world? WHO DOESN’T LOVE MAIL?

 

I mean. Hardcore environmentalists, probably. But other than that.

 

Getting paper mail is nothing like getting an email. When I spent my summers at camp, we would all sit on our beds and wait like puppies with wagging tails for our counselors to hand out mail at rest hour, and my reaction to the mail coming to my house has changed exactly zero percent over the years. So knowing how much I adore getting mail, and figuring that other people probably feel about the same, I decided to make mailing real letters and cards one of my 2016 goals. I went through my contacts and put birthdays into my planner, and I’ve already sent out six birthday cards–and even already received one response. From my mother-in-law, no less! 😀

 

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I’m pretty sure this now makes me That Person in the friend group who sends out the birthday cards and asks everyone to be their pen pal. Whatever, y’all, I’m cool as hell.

 

  1. Be More Mindful

 

I spend a lot of time with my clients teaching them about mindfulness, a concept that has its roots in Buddhism and got into the American mainstream through therapeutic approaches such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. There are as many ways of practicing mindfulness as there are therapists who teach it, but at its core, mindfulness is a state of open attention on the present, actively living in the moment and being aware of your experiences as you have them.

 

Practicing mindfulness is clinically shown to have benefits for mind and body, and as someone who tends to have problems in both, I figure it’s about time I got onto the train. As I’ve learned more about mindfulness over my time teaching it to clients, I’m always surprised to find how many things I do are already mindful: savoring the first cup of coffee each morning rather than chugging it down, scanning my body at the beginning of the day while I’m still in bed to become aware of what is hurting or sore, practicing daily acts of kindness and compassion.

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My plan for this resolution is to start with these exercises from Pocket Mindfulness, and to work on incorporating them into my daily life, especially mindful breathing, which I often do with my clients every day. As my therapist often reminds me, if I recommend it to my clients, why not try it myself?

 

  1. Read 25 Books in 2016

 

Over the past few years, I’ve set myself a goal of reading fifty books over the course of the year. I tend to do really well for January and February, taper off in the spring, power-read all through the summer, and then crash in the fall again. I still managed to hit my Goodreads goal in 2014 (by the skin of my teeth), and wasn’t too far off for 2015, but by November, I was more stressed about pushing myself to read fifty books than I was about enjoying the stories I was reading.

 

For 2016, I decided to set a lower goal, with the hope of being able to incorporate my mindfulness by improving my attention to what the books I read rather than powering through them to get to a certain number of books read by December 31st. I already have a pretty substantial reading list of books I’m totally excited to tackle in 2016, as well as a shiny library card to play with, so I’ve got to say, I’m pretty excited. And speaking of books and excitement…

 

  1. Write Every Day

 

In all honesty, this one really should be “write something creative every day”, since I definitely won’t count myself as having written something if all I wrote in a day was progress notes at work. That said, I’m excited about this. I wrote a bit in my Passion Planner reflection about how important I’ve found it to block out time in my day to write, and setting writing goals for myself has also been super helpful. Journalling has been a big part of me feeling happier over the past months–I notice a distinct difference in my sleep quality and how settled my mind is as I try to fall asleep on nights when I’ve journaled versus nights when I haven’t.

 

Writing has always been a huge passion of mine, and I am always, always happier when I’m writing as often as I can. As long as I’m writing creatively, it doesn’t matter what I’m writing: original stories, fanfiction (judge away, y’all, I don’t need your sass), blog posts, creative essays, media analysis, geeky meta, it all settles onto me like a warm, fuzzy literary blanket and lights up my whole being. This is probably going going to be the easiest resolution to keep.

 

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My favorite view.

 

Like I said at the top of the post: I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, though I find myself getting into them year after year. I haven’t had much luck keeping them in the past. But I’m hoping that picking resolutions that are positive, send good energy into myself and the world, and give me enough wiggle room to compromise might finally be the equation that helps me reach my goals this year.

 

Did you make resolutions for 2016? What are your plans to reach them? Drop me a line in the comments!