I always had a wish, mysterious in origin, that I would have grown up in working class Brooklyn in the 1940s.  Maybe I watched too many Frank Sinatra/Gene Kelly movies with my mom, or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn more times than I should have.

Though indeed there was a romantic innocence back then, what I didn’t realize as a child was how much suffering people went through, sometimes in unimaginable ways.  People throughout the world endured tragic losses as a result of the war, and yet there were also people living other kinds of pain, pain that was often hidden from those they loved most.  One of them was author Barbara Donsky.

In Barbara’s compelling new memoir  Veronica’s Grave,  she tells the story of how her mother simply disappeared when she was three years old.  Unbelievably, nobody told Barbara that it had happened.  Not her father Eddie, nor her beloved Nana, nor any of the aunts and uncles that were a part of her life.  One day she had a new baby brother (also named Eddie), moved with him and her father into her grandmother’s house, and no one ever spoke of Veronica again.  In Barbaras’ mind, her mother had simply vanished.

Though very much aware her mother was gone, Barbara learned quickly that she was never to speak of her.  She remembers her Nana saying that any mention of Veronica would “open a can of worms”, something most people didn’t want to do in the 1940s.  There were no photographs of Veronica in the house, and nobody ever spoke of her.  While everyone else thought she’d forgotten her mother’s existence, Barbara spent years wondering where her mother had gone, all while secretly harboring hopes that she would come back.

Five years later, when Barbara was eight years old, her father remarried.  He simply told Barbara that she should call his new wife “mom”, and to tell anyone who asked that she was her “real” mother.

It wasn’t until Barbara was in her early twenties that she discovered the truth about what happened to her mother – that she died while giving birth to Eddie.  Even still, her father never discussed his emotions or why he had kept silent about Veronica for all of those years.

Her story is so hard to understand in today’s pop psychology/reality show culture.  People routinely “shed their inhibitions” (if they have any left) and expose their souls  to the world at large on a daily basis.  It seems we talk about everything, all the time, to a point where old fashioned discretion can even seem refreshing.  Yet I would surely choose a culture that celebrates expressing emotions to one that disguises them them, any day.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I really related to some of the emotional aspects of this book, especially with respect to my own family.  My mother is similar to Barbara’s father in that she is extremely uncomfortable with expressing emotions.  When my mother’s sister gave birth to a  baby girl who died upon delivery, my grandmother neither visited her in the hospital or even spoke of the loss.  I can tell how much this memory still hurts my beloved aunt.  The withdrawal and refusal to speak about difficult things was so common for families at that time, and unfortunately, is still is a struggle for many of us.

Veronica’s Grave carries an important message.  It reminds us that burying such hurt only creates more pain.  This lovely book enhanced my gratitude for the more open and honest communication we have several generations later, even if it means keeping up with the Kardashian’s more than we might wish.  Sharing our joys and sorrows with those we love most not only helps us as individuals, but is also crucial to healing our  world.

 

imagesI find this type of book experience rather like the Chinese takeout legend: while tasty and delicious, it leaves me hungry at the end.

Many people prefer books like this, ones that they can escape into, ones that suck them in until they arrive panting and breathless at the last page.  They want to forget where they are for the moment, to be grabbed by a story that won’t let them go.

Although I enjoy that once in awhile,  I typically don’t  (I was the only one in my  book group who liked Gilead — about as opposite in pace from The Girl on the Train as you can get).  Books like Twilight and Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey are beloved by the thousands.  I, however, do not typically  enjoy shushing my daughters and letting the laundry pile up because I have to find out who the killer is, or discover “who ends up with who”.  I like books that are interesting, but that I can put down until I am ready to read them again.

Having said all that, I was gripped by this well written story (and did shush smaller people once or twice).  Rachel is the title girl on the train who sees something shocking from her train car, but later turns out to be a questionable witness herself.  Told through the eyes of three characters, the reader has to decide who to believe.

I could flesh out a little deep meaning from this book if I try hard enough.  “Jess” and “Jason”, the strangers that Rachel sees from the train every day and imagines as having the perfect life, turn out to be very different from what she imagines.  This tendency to romanticize what we see on the surface gets most of us into trouble at one point or another  (although hopefully not in as much trouble as Rachel).

It reminds me of when I met another mom shortly after having my first child.  Upon finding out I had one child instead of two, she told me that I had “no idea how easy my life was”.  This took me aback.  I could have had cancer or been going through a divorce (I wasn’t).  But she made some awfully big assumptions based on very little information.

We all do that sometimes.  Even if you are not a whack job like Rachel, you’ve probably made similar goofy assumptions about other people based on one tiny observation.  This story is certainly a reminder that everyone has a much deeper story than we can see from the outside.

But still…after a book like this I find myself asking, what’s the point?  Most people would say, um, fun? Diversion? Escape?  The thing is,  I don’t really want to escape, imperfect as my life may be.  At least not into Rachel’s twisted world.  For those times I do enjoy escaping into a great story, I don’t want to feel icky at the finish.  While pain and suffering are a part of every story, both real and imagined, I need some semblance of hope at the end.

I feel a little nerdy admitting this, and wondering if I am the only one who feels this way.  It seems far more socially acceptable to say I love every kind of book, especially one as popular as this.  But I don’t.  I guess that while you can decide what you read, you cannot decide what you like to read.

 

 

IMG_5386Habits are the architecture of our lives. – Gretchen Rubin

A brand new year always prompts me to start to thinking about what I want do next with what poet Mary Oliver calls my “one wild and beautiful life”.

Making regular habits of writing and exercising have been on my wish list for months. I also want to go to bed earlier, and become more involved in the causes I feel passionate about.  And I really want to simplify and declutter my house once and for all.  Yet while I make sure I do the things I have to do, I struggle to do these things that I want to do.  Why is that?  Author Gretchen Rubin has some helpful answers.

Better than Before is a prequel to Rubin’s two previous bestsellers, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home.   After finding that people often struggle to maintain habits that would actually make them happier, Rubin set out to research why — and how people can change.

One of the first things she learned is that a person’s response to what they want for themselves (start exercising, get up earlier) and to what others expect from them (completing work assignments, showing up on time for a meeting) will affect how they form and keep habits.  After exhaustive research, Rubin found that individuals respond to expectations in four different ways: as an obliger (meets outer expectations easily), questioner (questions all expectations), rebel (rebels against all expectations) or upholder (meets both their own expectations and those of others).

If you question the validity of this kind of rubric, you may be a questioner like me. It seems that my many questions have an interesting effect on my habits.  Sometimes I skip taking vitamins — because I question whether they really do any good.  I stall on a writing piece, questioning whether or not I should change my approach to make it better.  I question whether or not I should get rid of a ratty sweater — it was a gift, after all — and toss it back in my drawer.

None of these questions are bad, and may even be helpful at times.  Questioning can be a good thing – it leads to things like civil rights, after all – but left unchecked, it can also lead to habit sabotage  (should I really still go running now that it’s raining?), simply because I cannot get off the ferris wheel of indecision.

To avoid this kind of wishy-washy thinking, I have started taking Rubin’s advice and following most of my habits daily — even when circumstances make it challenging.  When my children are home sick, I can still exercise. Maybe I can’t go to the gym, but I can still do situps and jumping jacks at home.  And while I can’t march in a protest, I might sign a petition. Perhaps I won’t be able to clean out an entire closet, but I can tackle a drawer.  As Rubin points out, keeping habits daily is actually easier because there is no indecision, no choice to make about whether it is an “exercise day” or a “writing day”.  Especially if I write them down.

Writing desired habits down has proven to help people stick with habits more easily.  Even Johnny Cash knew this, as Rubin shows by printing one of his to-do lists:

Not smoke

Kiss June

Not kiss anyone else

Cough

Pee

Eat

Not eat too much

Worry

Go see Mama

Practice piano

I like Johnny’s style, but my goals are a little different…so here are my daily habits for 2016 (Monday through Saturday):

Pray

Seek peace and justice for my family and my world

Exercise

Write

Tidy/Declutter

Go to bed by 10:30

I think that about covers it.

As eighteenth century novelist Anthony Trollope says, “A small daily task, if it really be daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules”.  Here’s hoping that together, our small daily tasks will add up to one spectacular year.

Unknown-2I really wanted to love A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The cover is beautiful, and I adore references to nursery cocoa and lamplighters at dusk.  But I couldn’t help tripping over the outdated language:

The sun is not-a-bed, when I

At night upon my pillow lie;

Still round the earth his way he takes

And morning after morning makes.

Huh?  As much as I want my daughters to appreciate the classics, they – and I – prefer Shel Silverstein.

Now that I have read Under the Wide and Starry Sky,  I feel as if I have betrayed Stevenson by dissing his stuffy poetry.  Nancy Horan’s historical novel about his life and love with Fanny Osbourne reveals him to be smart, funny, and relentlessly optimistic.  He has become not only someone I admire, but someone I wish I could have coffee with.  Here are three reasons why:

1.  Work Ethic

Stevenson had a work ethic that would put an Olympic athlete to shame.

A sickly invalid for much of his life, Stevenson wrote Treasure IslandStrange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped while largely bedridden.  He had a prodigious writing habit each morning, even while battling illness.  He was constantly thinking up stories — Treasure Island arose from pirate tales he would tell to his stepson Sammy.  And he was so passionate about dialect, he tested pirate curses from his sick bed.  Over breakfast, his family could hear Stevenson shouting from his bedroom : “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest…”

So much for my excuses.  No more saying, “I can’t write because one of the kids is throwing up”.  Stevenson wrote even while he was throwing up.

Unknown-42.  Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne

If you are going to write while bedridden, it helps to have your spouse bring you tea and toast.  Fanny Osbourne did this and much more for Louis, as he was known, throughout their life together.

At the age of thirty-five, Fanny had left her unfaithful husband Sam in San Francisco, after a friend gave her this advice: “Go study art in Europe…it’s one of he few respectable ways a woman can leave a rotten husband.”

So she did.  Setting bravely off for Belgium with her three children, she ended up meeting and falling in love with Stevenson, who was ten years her junior.  Throughout their life together (which would ultimately take them all over the world), Fanny would raise her children, produce art, plant gardens, and nurse Stevenson back from near death throughout his many illnesses.  She “dosed him with Dover’s powder”.  She spoon fed him soup by day, and watched him cough by night.

Fanny also built furniture from scratch, wrote her own stories and endured months of seasickness so that Stevenson could be restored.  She helped edit Stevenson’s work, and so influenced the outcome Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Stevenson threw the first draft into the fire.  Come to think of it, she beat her husband handily when it came to work ethic.

3.  Sense of Adventure

Stevenson didn’t just write about adventure, he lived it.  From traveling through Europe with fellow artists and writers as a young man to spending the last years of his life living on the island of Samoa, his life reads like one of his novels.  He was friends with Henry James and Hawaiian King Kalakaua.    Through battles at sea, quests for treasure, and dark secrets, Stevenson clearly loved exploring both interior and exterior worlds. He explored the lives of outlaws and the sometimes darkness of the human psyche.

And while I may not be the biggest fan of his children’s poetry, I love the poem he wrote while close to death (now on his tombstone):

Under the wide & starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Gladly did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

 

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

 

UnknownNaive as it sounds, I thought at first that Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild was about hiking.

I love hiking.  Introverted at heart, the idea of walking solo for three months on California’s Pacific Crest Trail sounds glorious to me (although I would prefer staying at a cute bed and breakfast to camping in the rain).  Having wandered through over ten countries with my own pair of boots, the ones on the cover seemed to promise great stories of adventure.  Sort of like Into Thin Air, but hotter and less dangerous.

Yet there is more than mere physical danger in this compelling book, which is not really about hiking at all. Though Strayed does give gripping accounts of backpack disasters and wildlife encounters, this book is really about an internal hike we must all take, at some point, through grief and loss.

Strayed’s decision to make the trek “began before I even imagined it…when I’d stood in a little room…and learned that my mother was going to die”.  Strayed was exceedingly – I’d say even unusually – close to her mother, and the news when she was 22  that her mother was dying from cancer devastated her.  It would be several years before she saw a guidebook to the Pacific Crest Trail in a store, and make the decision to take a grueling journey that relatively few people – and even fewer women – have taken.

The book opens in the middle of Strayed’s PCT hike, at a moment when she accidentally knocks one of her hiking boots over a cliff.  Stuck in the middle of nowhere without shoes for her feet (she ends up duct taping her already battered feet to her sandals), Strayed writes “I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled me and scorched me, and considered my options.  There was only one, I knew.  There was always only one.  To keep walking”.

That is our only choice too, and I think that is what makes this book so beloved.  People connect with this outdoor walk through indoor grief.  My grief looks different, but I relate to her fierce anger that she has to take the walk at all.

When Cheryl sits down and sobs over not being able to light her stove or find water, I am reminded of being stranded in Thailand, rain soaking my sweatshirt and jeans, and trying to find a bus.  No one I tried to flag down could understand my questions, much less provide any answers.  My tears weren’t just over whether I’d make it back to my hotel.   Whether fire, water, or transport – these are core reminders of our dependence.  My tears were those of feeling utterly alone in the world.

Despite an abusive father (whom her mother finally left when Strayed was six), she shares warm memories alongside painful ones.  Vivid rememberings of her mother evoke feelings of being loved and cared for: ” ‘We aren’t poor’, my mother said, again and again.  ‘Because we are rich in love’.  She would mix food coloring in sugar water and pretend with us that it was a special drink.  Sarsapilla or Orange Crush or lemonade.  She’d ask, Would you like another drink, madam? in a snooty British voice that made us laugh every time.”

I found myself oddly envious of this love that Cheryl, her mother and her two siblings shared.  It seems a crazy thing to envy – I grew up in a solidly middle class neighborhood, with a library I could walk to and pork chops and applesauce for dinner.  Cheryl’s family didn’t even have electricity when she was in high school.  Yet as much as we try and box everything up into neat categories, such as “good” or “bad” childhoods, our complex lives defy such classifications.  Some with grim circumstances are still able to find joy; some with so-called happy childhoods carry a pain along with them that never leaves.

Ironically, Cheryl had to spend three months alone to conquer loneliness, three months of physical danger to to dispel her worst fears.  This is the best kind of storytelling, one that brings healing to the reader by someone who “gets it”.  Reading Cheryl’s story, we feel less alone, even as we travel with her on perhaps the loneliest hike possible.

 

UnknownGarrison Keillor once said that “poets give us a truer account of life than we are accustomed to getting”. Whether small, like a Sunday morning, or large, like death, poems put into words what is essentially beyond (and under) the words. They may even help us understand something of ourselves that we didn’t understand before.

While reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Art of Disappearing” (part of the collection Words Under the Words), I recognized myself as an introvert for the very first time.  I was in my early twenties and didn’t even know what an introvert was.  Feeling a chill of recognition, I read the opening lines:

When they say Don’t I know you?

say no.

When they invite you to the party

remember what parties are like

before answering.

The notion of an unwanted invitation felt contradictory for a single woman like me, living in downtown Chicago — who should by definition want to go to parties.  Suddenly I felt understood by this poet I had never met, even more than the friends I was spending time (and going to parties) with.

As to why some of us would rather spend time alone, Shihab-Nye explains,

You’re trying to remember something 

too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.

True, for me at least.  Ideas and insights come through long stretches of time alone that I would never receive in a crowd.  Sometimes I kick myself though, being one of those people who doesn’t like to talk to people on airplanes or trains, knowing this is my loss (you can meet the most fascinating people on airplanes and trains).

This doesn’t seem to bother Nye.  She goes on to give this advice:

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store

nod briefly and become a cabbage.

I don’t really do this.  When I run into neighborhood moms at Safeway, I usually like to chat rather than pretending I am a head of cauliflower.  But I find myself feeling interrupted somehow, and would rather stay in my own thoughts.

Some months after I read the poem and had this awakening, a nice looking guy and his friend knocked on my apartment door.  They invited me to a party down the hall, and I declined the invitation.  Sitting in my claw foot bathtub with a glass of wine, so utterly content to be alone, I wondered, “Am I weird”?  Then I remembered “The Art of Disappearing” and smiled to myself.  Not weird…just an introvert.  At least I now know someone who understands.

 

 

Unknown

I think that the main character of The Rosie Project may have helped me with my new year’s resolutions.

In this hilarious and touching book, socially challenged genetics professor Don Tillman attempts to use the scientific methods that have served him so well at work in order to find a suitable wife.  Regular dating practices have not proven successful for Professor Tillman.  He notes that “there is something about me that women find unappealing”.

Indeed.  That something is Don’s lack of emotional awareness likely resulting from Asberger’s syndrome, a condition that Don doesn’t realize he has – even after giving a lecture on it to suburban parents and their children.  After the lecture, Don meets Rosie Jarman, whom  he immediately rejects as “wife material” but forms a friendship with that will  ultimately challenge his ideas about love.

Although the book never actually states that Don is on the autism spectrum, it is strongly suggested.  There is some controversy about whether or not someone with Asberger’s syndrome could or would really respond to Rosie the way Don ultimately does.  Whether or not that is true, I really connected with his character.  One Amazon reviewer called Don “a mirror for all of us”.  I found myself drawn to him for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, his rigidity in certain areas offers him a measure of freedom that I crave for myself. Don is so organized that he follows a “Standardized Meal System”, which means preparing the same weekly dinner on the same night of each week (if you remember “Prince Spaghetti Day”, you know what I am talking about).  The first time Rosie comes over to Don’s apartment, she feasts upon the Tuesday meal plan: lobster, mango and avocado salad with crispy seaweed and deep fried leek garnish.  My first thought when I read this was, why am I not doing this?

I think it is because I resist limitations.  There are so many cookbooks!  So many recipes!  And I am the kind of person that doesn’t want to miss any of them.  Yet Don experiences peace amidst some of his limits.  So thanks to Don, I am scheduling more regular meals (although lobster salad may be a bit fancy for us).  Taco Tuesdays and Waffle Wednesdays help me fuss less with menu planning and have more time to talk to my kids or practice the guitar.

Don’s character touched me in another way too.   His inability to conform makes him strangely more authentic – and lovable – than those around him who are struggling to be liked.   This led me to wonder whether the author was playing with the idea of what constitutes “normal” in our society.  Practicing so-called “normal” behavior might keep people from whispering behind our backs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we will be deeply fulfilled.

Some measure of trying to fit into and be accepted by a group is human and normal, of course.  I think it is when we compromise our deepest values that we veer off course.  Don does come to realize that changing his behavior (as much as he is able) will attract more friends, but he also questions whether or not they are doing the same thing: “How can I be sure that other people are not…playing the game to be accepted but suspecting all of the time that they are different?”

One of my favorite scenes in the book is where Don plays that game himself.  He prepares for a date with a professional dancer by practicing with a skeleton from the university (with hilarious results).  Isn’t this an extreme version of what we all do at times?  We contort our personalities, beliefs, or appearance in order to fit in at work or parties or even home, and end up looking foolish or feeling exhausted. Sure, sometimes it is necessary…but it seems crazy to dance with a skeleton when you don’t have to.

 

 

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