The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

Photo by D Karr

Photo by D Karr

Robert Frost? Really? It feels a little on the nose when I’m spending time with my family in New England, but the truth is, I grew up listening to his words, and to those of Emerson and Thoreau. I used to go swimming every summer in Walden Pond, and we’d walk to the replica of Thoreau’s little cabin some afternoons, and some part of me has always felt tied to that little room. It’s only slightly strange then that years later, I would go to Emerson College to get my degree – only slightly, because certain writers ( along with Alcott, and Wharton, and Dickinson) have always filled me with a sense of my own history. Even though I no longer live here, reading their familiar lines is a coming home all of its own.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My Most Excellent Year: A novel of love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park, Steve Kluger

I had about a hundred things I was supposed to be doing this weekend, and rereading this book was not on the list. The problem was, by about four o’clock on Sunday, I was in such an irritable mood that all I wanted was an old friend.

Unfortunately, my oldest friends live thousands of miles away, and my dear friends within driving distance have marathon training runs, children’s birthday parties and new babies (or boyfriends) to keep their dance cards full. And as much as I cherish my husband (he is a wonderful and very patient man!), I could tell this mood was not going to improve even in his company. I decided to hit up my own private stacks and rediscovered one of my all-time favorite MG/YA novels.

I reread the whole thing in less than twelve hours, and it was just as perfect as I remembered. It’s told from the perspective of three seniors looking back at their freshman year of high school in Boston, and honestly, it just has everything I could ever want from a book like this: effortless diversity across race, orientation, and ability; passionate integration of interests covering topics as broad as baseball to musical theatre to political activism; beautiful, believable friendships; and atypically structured, loving families.

This is the kind of book I wish made it onto the curriculum for required reading in schools. Without being preachy or overly moralistic, it promotes resilient, realistic characters any student could be proud to emulate. It’s almost enough to make me want to rewind and take a second stab at being fourteen (almost).

 

For more about Steve Kluger, head over here.

WordPress trouble

I’m glad I subscribe to my own blog because it allows me to catch things like a stolen password and new posts very quickly. Note to other WordPress users: don’t be like me and think that two-step authentication is for suckers! It’s not!

Hopefully now that I’ve joined the more savvy internet age, we won’t have any more trouble. Sorry about the inconvenience. Back to your regularly scheduled programs.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More, Janet Mock

“They were all staring at me, like they expected something from me, you know?” I said. “It just made me uncomfortable.”

“Mary! Life is uncomfortable,” Wendi said, rolling her eyes as she remained focused on the dark streets ahead of us. “You have to get used to it or you’re going to live your life trying to make people comfortable. I don’t care what people say about me because they don’t have to live as me. You gotta own who you are and keep it moving.” (p. 117)

The first time I realized that my defining characteristic was being a social chameleon, I was in the second grade. We were lining up on the playground, girls on one end of the yard and boys on the other, and I asked my best friend at the time if we were going to be partners for our field trip. She was angry with me for some transgression I no longer remember, and she told me that she didn’t want to have anything to do with me – not because of whatever it was I’d done, but because instead of standing up for myself, I’d sold myself out and lied to try to regain her favor.

Decades later, the bitterness of that truth remains with me – that as a child, I cared more about blending in and avoiding uncomfortable confrontation than I did about doing the right thing. I suspect it still stings because I have so many more memories to back up that first one. I’ve never felt secure wielding my own perspective like a blade against the opposition. Instead, I extend the best and messiest parts of myself only to the people who know me best and remain an easygoing, adaptable stand-in to acquaintances and colleagues. When I read a book like this though, the way I choose to live fills me with a sense of shame and regret. Mock’s acceptance of her own truth in the face of cultural strictures and intolerance reminds me of what an easy life I’ve had, of how fortunate I am to make choices every day that deny some parts of myself while retaining the privilege of being viewed by others the way I want to be.

I compartmentalize because it’s easier to deny certain aspects of my life than it is to explain them at the risk of censure and confrontation. The woman Mock was at thirteen, struggling against insane odds and yet proud and certain of who she needed to be, serves as a reminder of my own laziness of self. I was in college before I felt I needed to take time to examine who I was or what I needed to do to become the person I want to be, and even to this day, I only speak up for myself or for those who need an ally about half the time. This is not an easy thing for me to admit. That failure to use my voice to fight for compassionate acceptance of all people is a flaw that I consider to be unforgivable. I very deeply root myself in the belief that to say nothing is not only to tacitly accept violence and cruelty as acceptable, but to be complicit in their propagation.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that the idea that affected me most deeply when I was reading this book was the unflappable love that surrounded Mock on her journey. Her family was not perfect. They weren’t always able to give her everything she needed, but the message she received over and over, regardless of circumstances, was that she was loved. It’s an idea I cling to when I fail to be proudly myself – that I don’t have to meet the expectations of anyone, even myself, to be deserving of that kind of love.

As I look back , what impresses me about my family is their openness. They patiently let me lead the way and kept any confusion or worry to themselves during a fragile period in my self-discovery. I recognize this as one of the biggest gifts they gave me. On some level, I knew they were afraid for me, afraid that I would be teased and taunted. Instead of trying to change me, they gave me love, letting me know that I was accepted. I could stop pretending and drop the mask. My family fortified my self-esteem, which I counted on as I embarked on openly expressing my rapidly evolving self. (pp. 108-109)

 

For more about Janet Mock, go here.

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell

I listened to almost all of Eleanor and Park while I was training for my race this spring. I had a little over an hour of it left after I came back from Colorado, and I eventually got around to listening to it last week while I was making dinner.

It felt strange to play it while I was indoors, to take it from the paths where I had run, feet pounding, brain half engaged with the story and half with the pull of my breath.The story made less sense to me there, in the kitchen, then it had in the hot sunlight of Saturday mornings. Park and Eleanor were more real when I was pushing myself to go just a little further, a little faster. In that vulnerable state, running more than I ever had before, a part of me opened up to their story. The mix tapes and their awkward conversations seemed familiar. I could remember high school the way it really was, sharp and exciting and new, rather than the way it seems when I look at pictures, or listen to songs I used to play on endless repeat in my car. 

In two days, I’m going to be spending a week with thirteen high schoolers. We’re going on a mission trip to work with an organization that is trying to put an end to human trafficking, and even though I’ve known these kids for two years, listening to this book reminds me of how much space exists between us. When I look in the mirror, it sometimes seems like I could still be seventeen, but when I sit and talk with them, I’m just…old. The heady rush of emotion that Rowell writes so well is always just under the surface for them; I can’t believe how big everything seems. SATs. Prom. Pop quizzes in Spanish class. Everything is in technicolor when they tell me about it, as though the world is constantly imploding around them every day.

It’s exhausting. I try to keep up with what they like, and who they like, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because a book like Eleanor and Park reminds me that, emotionally at least, I’m much closer to being the parent of a teenager than I am a teenager myself. It’s not that I don’t feel things deeply, but there is a contained element, even to my eruptions. There’s been a sanding down of intensity that happened so slowly, so subtly, I didn’t even realized it until my edges were soft.

That may be one of the reasons I love books like this. It reminds me of what it feels like to be on the verge of exploding out of my own skin. Of being young and in love and frightened of how little is controllable. These kids, when I’m with them, they’re in constant motion, even when they strive to be still. I listen to the rush of them all around me and wonder if every person who knew me at fifteen felt like this, like a rock in the stream of my life.

 

For more about Rainbow Rowell, go here.

Murder is Binding, Lorna Barrett

I have been on a mystery binge the last few weeks. It’s part of my transition into summer reading. I’m all about paperbacks I can take to the beach or lake; they can get sandy and wet without doing much real damage, and they can be left on a towel without fear of someone stealing them (the kindle is great for many things, but it doesn’t enjoy the elements or prove to be quite as discouraging to thieves).

Also, after months of keeping up the same work routine, these months of summer, while not necessarily vacation, provide an illusion of change. The days are longer. The drinks and barbecues and camp outs with friends are more plentiful, and in general, there’s a relaxing of the spirit. My reading habits tend to follow with a certain pleasant softening. I gravitate toward reading material that engages a playfulness rather than  studious or reflective part of my brain.

As a bonus, because I’m working on my own mystery novel, technically, I can call books like this research. Stretching it? Yes. A little. Maybe. But I don’t care. A good mystery is a gift, and I refuse to turn my nose up at the chance to read one. Barrett’s novel is even set near the town in New Hampshire where I grew up, so reading it felt like taking a mini-holiday back to the east coast (complete with a little family drama!). I was a little disappointed that the “binding” in question referred to book bindings and not quilting, but once I got over that, I was tickled by the idea of a town that tries to reestablish its downtrodden economy by inviting niche book shops to take over. I would happily live in such a town, and I suspect I am not alone.

Honestly, the premise alone was captivating to me. I loved imagining such a place – bookstores as far as the eye could see, and for every proclivity! Barrett even included a layer of realistic tension between the shop owners and the townies. Having lived for so many years in a small town kept alive by tourism dollars, I’m familiar with its double-edged sword. It can be difficult to live someplace constantly overrun with enthusiastic strangers. They walk too slowly, they seem to speak decibels louder than necessary, and they grab all the parking…but they’re also necessary. And sometimes even adorable in that exuberant, remember what it feels like to be on a holiday sort of way.

Barrett manages to capture that dichotomy here while exploring the position of an outsider like her protagonist, Tricia. Even after months of living in this town, she’s still very much on the fringes, yet when her sister comes to visit, she manages to insinuate herself with the locals in no time. It’s this push and pull at the heart of the book that drew me in, the reminder of what it felt like to live for eight years in a town where I never quite fell into step with the community, blended with the sort of dark mystery that exists in the secret heart of every town.

 

For more about Lorna Barrett, go here.

Young House Love, Sherry and John Petersik

Am I the only person who gets hit by an intense wave of pride after replacing an old toilet seat with a brand new one? Or after putting up shelves in the garage that require several iterations of measuring, drilling, and stud finding? Or planting tomatoes and keeping them alive long enough for them to actually provide me with fruit?

I  can’t be the only one who sometimes stares at home improvements months after they’ve been completed with a disproportionate sense of satisfaction at what I’ve accomplished. If I am, well then, you’re not doing right. Or possibly you are so used to doing it right that it’s lost its magic. Maybe you picked up a hammer as a child and you’ve been wielding it Thor-style ever since. You probably look at homes that need a little TLC and think, yup. I can do that. I can take that run-down pile of junk and turn it into something unique and wonderful.

That’s not me. It never has been. I didn’t grow up in a house with handy folk (apologies to my parents, who are wonderful people, and talented in many other ways, but it’s true). After my grandfather passed away, my brother was the only one of us with innate mechanical skills, and we’ve always turned to him when we need something repaired. The thing is, he lives three thousand miles away, and even if he didn’t, I’m as capable as the next guy (seriously – you should see those shelves I put up!), and with a little bit of research and a lot of patience, I’ve taught myself a lot about home and garden improvements over the last few years.

Of course, it helps that my husband knows about things like turning off the power at the source before beginning an electrical repair and measuring twice (yes, twice!) so we only have to cut once. His dad was apparently more hands-on when it came to tackling home repairs, and he has benefitted from those early years of experience. When it comes down to it though, most of the projects we take on are totally out of our wheelhouse. Typically what happens is that one of us will be struck by an idea, and after a few week of casual discussion, we’ll jump in. (“Let’s just try it!” is basically my mantra when it comes to all things home related, followed closely by “What’s the worst that could happen?” Let me tell you, I’ve changed my tune about that one after almost losing my left eye while trying to cut dead branches off our tree without safety goggles on.)

I probably should let inspiration guide me a little less than planning and research, but that’s one of the great things about Young House Love. The projects discussed by Sherry and John Petersik are cheap,  straightforward, and satisfying (like a big bowl of spaghetti without the carb coma). When I’m in need of a simple pick-me-up project for an afternoon, I can flip through and get inspired, and when we’re  about to tackle something bigger, I can check both the book and their blog for help. Their instructions are easy to understand (and include plenty of pictures), and as a family, they approach these tasks with a sense of humor and enjoyment I find refreshing.

Summer is here, and with it, my desire to clean up, reorganize, and tackle projects I’d been putting off in colder weather. With hours more of sunlight to work with, even week nights are becoming project friendly, and with the Petersiks behind me, I’m ready to break out the tools and go to town on our house! After I buy some safety goggles. Very important, those. Not the same thing as sunglasses, by the by…

 

For great project ideas, check out Young House Love at its source.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher

Michael snorted. “You destroy buildings, fight monsters openly in the streets of the city, work with the police, show up in newspapers, advertise in the phone book, and ride zombie dinosaurs down Michigan Avenue, and you think that you work in the shadows? Be reasonable.” (p 267)

There are few things I love more than a new Dresden Files book. I have to give Jim Butcher major props too, because come spring, he delivers. I’ve been reading this series since 2007 (seven years after he began publishing stories about Harry Dresden), and although it’s painful to wait for the next volume after I finish a new one, it’s comforting to know I won’t be left hanging indefinitely. I cannot overstate how much I value consistency when it comes to a series I love.

An author can buy my affection for the low, low price of a great book written every year. Piece of cake, right? If you have a pact with the devil, maybe. Or you’re heavily into witchcraft. I suspect Jim Butcher of both. And I am fine with that. He works hard, and his books are such fun that even while my rational brain is applauding him for the grueling writing schedule he must have to keep, I never get the feeling it’s hard work – just the contrary. His style is sarcastic adventuring at its best, and it reads like he enjoys spending time in his version of Chicago more than the world outside of its pages.

I don’t know anything about Butcher’s personal life. I don’t where he lives, or whether he’s married or has kids. I’ve never seen him speak or read any interviews, and yet I’ve created a mental image of him after reading his books that informs my own work as a writer deeply. I greatly admire his work ethic. I don’t need to do more than look at the number of books he’s published to know that he lives by the adage “a writer writes.” I, like many writers, go through periods over the course of every year where I write more or less, and at the moment, I’m in one of those lulls that forces me to confront the fear that I’m not doing enough to prove myself in my field. When I read books by authors like Butcher, I’m humbled by his dedication to his characters, to his fans, and to his own desire to tell stories.

It’s such a beautiful thing to read books by writers who are clearly in love with writing. That creative fire ignites their work to create spectacular energy on every page; Butcher is the kind of writer who stokes that fire for all its worth. He could just as easily fall back on the great novels he’s written in the past, but instead, he breathes new life into his characters with every book. When I finished Skin Game, I was reminded again of the joy that lies beneath his stories. It’s a feeling that makes me wish I had time to go back and reread the series every year. I could easily live in Dresden’s universe for months at a time, and the most butt-kicking part of realizing that is that knowledge I should take as much pleasure from my own fictional worlds as I do the ones created for my enjoyment…

 

For more about Jim Butcher, go here.

Midnight Crossroad, Charlaine Harris

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know about my love of all things Harris. I’ve read every series she’s written as fast as she could write them, and when each of them ended, I experienced the kind of sadness unique to multi-book story arcs. (There’s a different sadness that comes with reading a great standalone book, or a trilogy – it’s not a question of greater or lesser – it’s just different.)

Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to books with seemingly unending adventures though (Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, even back to the Berenstain Bears). Something inside of me felt this overwhelming joy at the idea of sinking down into a book with characters I knew and loved well. A friend once said it was just like me to extend my introversion to having a hard time meeting new fictional characters, and I think she was right. When it comes to novels especially, I am most drawn to both characters and authors I already know and love. That being so, this past May was a banner month. I got the latest book in the Dresden Files and the first book in a new series by Harris.

Now, first books are obviously not as exciting as sequels, at least for me (I suspect Harris was ready to start writing new characters with thirteen Sookie Stackhouse novels under her belt), but the transition was eased by the inclusion of a minor character from her Shakespeare series. I have to admit, when I realized who he was (some time before the connection was explicitly made), I mentally made the switch from “well, I suppose I can learn to love this new series” to “ooh continuity is the best – more please!”

I think what had also made me hesitate before that point was that Harris has decided to write at least this first book from the point of view of multiple characters. While that’s not uncommon, it is a different approach than she’s used in the past, and one of the biggest downsides of it is that it takes a lot longer to get to know those characters and establish trust in them as narrators. Having just finished writing a book where we had ten different characters telling the story, I have been on the receiving end of plenty of opinions about the technique, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person who has mixed feelings about it. I still remember when I started reading George RR Martin’s books over a decade ago; it took me three tries to get into A Game of Thrones because there were just so many people clamoring to be heard, and I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Dance of Dragons because I’m bitter about how he split the characters up in the fourth and fifth books. (Yes, I do realize it’s ridiculous to hold a grudge when the fifth book has been out for about three years, but I had roughly six years between those two books to really work myself into a snit, and I suspect it will take about that long before I’ve completely let it go. And no, before you ask, I don’t watch the show – his story was devastating enough the first time. No need to relive that pain in high def.)

I like to make one of the characters in any given book the friend I rely on, and it’s much easier to do that in books with only one narrator. The person I love best isn’t always in that primary role, but I know there will be a certain consistency in my interpretation of the characters when I’m not bouncing from one head into another. I don’t know that it bothers me all that much for an author to use multiple povs in most books, but it threw me for a loop this time because I wasn’t expecting it. I had to adjust to Harris’ new style in addition to setting, story, and characters, and I’m not too proud to admit it helped to have one familiar face in the crowd. That being said, I love that she went quite dark at the end of this first volume, and I’m glad as an author she’s generally consistent about getting a book out every year so I have something to look forward to next spring.

 

For more about Charlaine Harris, head over here.

Chi Running, Danny Dreyer and Katherine Dreyer

Last week, I promised you running. I said I would write about it regardless of how my race went, and I suppose it was good I made that promise because otherwise I would try to pretend the race never happened. The disappointment of it would continue to eat away at me, and all of my workouts for the foreseeable future would be tinged with the overwhelming feeling of failure I had when I crossed the finish line on Monday. Maybe they still will be – I don’t know. But I’m hoping there will be some release in sharing the experience, that a few of you have similar stories and will know exactly how I feel, and that we can turn over a new leaf together.

Because, you see, after five months of training – five months that countless people made fun of me for needing (“Who needs to train that hard for a 10k?” is a phrase I could have tattooed on my arm at this point) – I bonked. Hard. But let me back up. Let me paint a picture of the week before the race. I got to Colorado last Tuesday, partly so I could help my sister-in-law get ready for her wedding and partly to adjust to the altitude for the Bolder Boulder. On Wednesday, we ran errands most of the day and then watched our beloved Rockies lose from the seventh row behind home plate while tornadoes and thunderstorms rocked the surrounding area. Thursday was a blur of bachlorette-related activities and Friday was spent tying hundreds of bows out of ribbon that all needed to look just so, followed by the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner (and again with the crazy weather! Who knew tornadoes came so far west? Not me, clearly.) On Saturday, I was on my feet from 6am until 2am. It was an incredible day, but when I had to get up at 8:30 on Sunday morning, I felt like I had been hit by a truck, and possibly one of those tornadoes. Over the course of those days, I also had to take an emergency Benadryl twice because lavender had found its way into my food (once in the form of a tea-infused salad dressing and once in honey), and by Sunday night, my stomach was so angry with me, I couldn’t sleep at all.

The funny thing was, I wasn’t even nervous about the race – not even at three o’clock on Monday morning when I was laying on my side trying to massage my belly into submission. I’d had plenty of tough training runs, days where I felt even worse – I’d still been able to push through and finish close to the time I wanted to. So when I still couldn’t stomach any food on Monday morning at seven, I wasn’t really worried. I had a Powergel with me, and a water bottle filled with Gatorade. I was going to be surrounded by happy runners; surely the adrenaline would carry me through.

If you’re shaking your head at me right now, you’re right. I’m wrong. Adrenaline is not enough to counteract a week of five or less hours of sleep a night and two straight days of barely eating. By mile two, I had given up hope that my legs would lose that leaden feeling, and by mile four when I finally saw my in-laws (the first people, out of fifty thousand, that I had recognized on the course), it was all I could do not to cry. At no point did the joy or energy around me have any effect on my run other than to make me feel utterly alone. By the time I pushed myself over the finish line fifteen minutes later than the slowest time I had expected, I had to force myself to swallow vomit. I spent the next half hour slowly making my way through a crushing number of enthusiastic racers with only one goal – find some quick sugar to restore some semblance of normality to me body. The Pepsi I finally found was warm and flat, but it helped. I was able to hold it together for another few hours while the rest of the racers in the wedding party gathered to celebrate Memorial Day in the stands.

It wasn’t until later, after my much-needed shower, when I was finally alone, that the bitter disappointment overwhelmed me. Five months of training. Five months of visualizing an exciting PR. Five months of talking to people about the race, people who expected me to do well, and to have a good time, who I had to smile blandly at because it hurt to admit just how sad I was. The people I did tell were supportive, of course. They reminded me that it wasn’t my fault, and that my training actually did kick in since I was able to draw on it in terrible circumstances in order to make it over the finish line. I appreciated that the people who love me could say that (and mean it), and probably in a few weeks, I’ll even believe them. I don’t right now, of course. Right now, I just have to grit my teeth and get back out there because I know running makes me happy most days.

That’s where Chi Running comes in. I started reading it a few weeks ago, and even though I haven’t finished it yet, I know it’s going to be the key to reinventing myself as a runner. It’s the lifeline I’m holding onto – that belief, held above all others, in the child-like joy of running. I need that right now. I need that reminder that beyond bad days and heart-breaking races, running is still my happy place. It’s still something I can do that defies the way I imagined myself as a kid and inspires me to persevere in other parts of my life. When I have a good run, it reminds me that I can do anything, really, because running is hard for me. Running is, some days, impossible for me in fact, and yet I still do it. I have failed so many times, and yet here I am, just a few days past failing big, and I want to pick myself up and start again. That is the best version of me, the version running has created.

I love the promise this book offers me. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t been overly injury prone as a runner, but it’s certainly not effortless exercise, and if the Dreyers can offer me insight into running in a more holistic, body-affirming way, I’m all for it. It won’t shield me from the disappointment that inevitably goes hand in hand with a bad race day, but with any luck, it will assuage my limping spirit.

 

For more about Danny and Katherine Dreyer, go here.

Catch a Body, Ilse Bendorf

I know, I know. Two weeks of poetry collections, and now, a poem. Am I trying to kill you?! (For the record, “are you trying to kill us?” was the most common phrase I remember hearing after being assigned poetry in school. Turns out, some things never change. I can actually feel the collective “are you trying to kill us” vibe expanding across the universe as you read this.) But no. I am not trying to kill you.

What I am trying to do is get ready to throw a bachelorette party for my amazing sister-in-law (my husband’s little sister) in a rental house in Colorado while juggling last-minute prep for her wedding in two days and trying to get in a workout to make sure I’m as ready as I can be for the race we’re all running at altitude three days after that. (For the record, next week I’m going to be talking about running, regardless of how the race goes, so you can at least look forward to a change from this more cerebral phase to what is essentially a physical manifestation of the idea of summer.)

Basically, I’m busy with the best kind of work – the kind that nets me a new brother by the end of the weekend and is full of family and exciting new possibilities – but that leaves very little free time this week for reading. And the books I have waiting for me look so good…soon, little books, soon.

For now though, in anticipation of a beautiful day, here’s one of the poems I’ve been reading this year as I’ve been thinking about E and O’s new life together. Marriage is really the great hodgepodge – it’s full and intimate and hard and wonderful. It leaves a lot unsaid, and it requires being more honest and loving than we ever imagine we can be when we’re young. It’s also not for everyone, but for those who want that commitment, I tell you from the other side, it is a great adventure.

 

Catch a Body

Salinger, I’m sorry, but “Don’t ever tell
anybody anything” is a string of words
I would like to wrap up in canvas and sink
to the bottom of the Hudson, or extract
by laser from the ribcage of all of us
who ever believed it, who felt afraid
to miss someone, to be the last one
standing. “Tell everyone everything” is
not exactly right, but I do believe that if
your mother looks radiant in violet
you should tell her, or when a juvenile
sparrow thrashes its wings in dustpiles
and reminds you of a lover’s eyelashes,
you should say so. We are islands all of us,
but we are also boats, our secrets flares,
pyrotechnic devices by which we signal
there’s someone in here we’re still alive!
So maybe it’s, “don’t be afraid.” We can
rewrite Icarus, flame-resistant feathers,
wax that won’t melt, I mean it, I’ll draw up
a prototype right now, that burning ball
of orange won’t stop us, it’ll be everything
we dream the morning after, even if we fall
into the sea—we are boats, remember?
We are pirates. We move in nautical miles.
Each other’s anchors, each other’s buoys,
the rocket’s red, already the world entire.

 

For more about Ilse Bendorff, go here.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, Kevin Powers

I wrote about poetry last week, which means I should probably give it a rest and write about something more people love, since in my experience, the people who love poetry are greatly outnumbered by those who hate it or find it confusing, or even are frightened by the odd line breaks or the possibility of rhyme. The people who do love it tend to fall into two groups – one side proudly carrying the banner of  that love while the other loves it quietly, alone. People who hate poetry, on the other hand, seem to come in a rainbow of unexpected opinions about what poetry is or isn’t, and why they never read it or write it or even stand in the general vicinity of that section of the bookstore.

Most of my friends fall into the “hate it gently” category; for my sake, they pretend it’s only silly, when deep down, I expect that they absolutely loathe it. That’s okay with me. I still love them, and it allows me to hate things some of the things they love with much less guilt. I even understand it, although it still surprises me when I meet smart, well-read people who dislike not just a poet or a type of poetry but the entire genre with fierce determination.

I never try to force poetry on them because I know just how irritating it is when someone tries to convince me I’ll love something I already know I don’t, or won’t (soup, for example, or Mad Men). When I read a book like Letter Composed During a Lull in Fighting though, I find myself wishing I could strong-arm people into reading it because Powers is the kind of poet non-poetry fans could love, if only they gave him a chance. I, on the other hand, needed no convincing. I read four pages of his book before I knew, without a doubt, that it was coming home with me, and by the time I finished it (and for the record, I made myself read it over the course of a week because it was deserving of the extra time), I wanted to smear his words everywhere, on everyone, and have them see how perfect, and easy, and unbelievably painful poetry could be.

Reading it inspired me to pull out an old poetry project I had discarded a few years ago, and it also had me writing new poetry, which I haven’t done in over a year. It had me tuning into the news during my interval training at the gym because I didn’t want to be as disconnected and ignorant of the trauma he wrote about as I was when I started it. It was one of those books that influenced me for the better, but was also an amazing read in its own right; any writer will tell you that a book like that is both a joy and a kick in the ass.

This doesn’t happen very often, but this once, I wish my word were enough to convince people to read Powers’ book. It won’t be, of course. People who skirt around poetry will continue to do so, and even people who read and love poetry will mostly doubt how good it could really be. A few of you will go out and get it, or nod knowingly, having already found this book, or his first one, The Yellow Birds. And maybe in a year or ten, I’ll have forced a copy into enough hands that the desire to share it will dim, and I’ll go back to accepting that certain things are meant to be loved quietly, and alone.

 

For more about Kevin Powers, go here. Or, if you want to see what difference one letter in a url makes, go here and see an elephant jumping on a trampoline. It’s much more beautiful than you’d expect.

Living, Loving, and Leaving, John Rapoza, photographs by Rodrick Schubert

My husband brought back this little book of poetry from his trip to Colorado last week. I found it in his suitcase, and I suspect he pulled it off the shelves from somewhere in his parents’ home. It was published locally and written as a tribute to Rapoza’s late wife, who he cared for during a twelve-year struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He grew up in New England and lived for a time in California and Pennsylvania before moving to Boulder.

There was something about this little biography that resonated with me. As New England transplant to the west coast, but also as a person who has watched several family members die after years with Alzheimer’s, his story stuck in me, and I decided to give him a read. The poetry is sweet, and very personal, and while this is not a book I would necessarily recommend to everyone, reading it transported me back to my childhood quite unexpectedly.

Many of the poems have a rhyming scheme, something I’ve actually detested since I was old enough to read Dr. Seuss and A.A. Milne. As an adult, I’ve developed an appreciation for those authors, and for others who write in a similar vein for all ages, but as a child, I didn’t care for the sing-songy element. Nevertheless, I remember sitting in my room, in the sun, books spread out all around me, reading from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Where the Sidewalk Ends. I honestly have no idea why. I didn’t even like those books, but I think I just wanted to turn the pages and read aloud something I didn’t quite understand. I wanted to look at the old drawings and string long lines of poetry together under my breath. I would whisper the words just loud enough to hear them myself; it wasn’t a performance, but rather, an almost trance-like experience.

Reading this book reminded me of that (and reminded me again of what a very odd little duck I must have been). Here I was, decades later, curled up on the couch in the sun spending many minutes reading and rereading some of his poems while taking only a moment to skim others. Sometimes I stopped just to listen to the one bird who had taken up residence outside, or to the stream of cars passing by with that familiar tire swish a block away, and it struck me again how much power books have.

I had no intention of revisiting that little pink bedroom with its scalding metal radiator, and the holes in the window screen that I carefully widened with one finger, the little white bookcase that separated my room from my brother’s. That room had a closet full of witches. It had charcoal grey carpeting that rubbed my knees raw and the perfect place to sit to wave across at my best friend’s bedroom window. The door never closed right, and the walls were covered with art that even then I knew wasn’t very good.

I only lived in that room for five years, but after reading Rapoza’s book, I could remember how I’d organized my books (from the top shelf down by favorite author, either in alphabetical or sequential title order – Little Women, for example, was on the third shelf on the middling right, Roald Dahl’s novels were the top all the way to the left), what I kept on my dresser (a giant ugly purple plastic makeup box filled with hair ties, electric blue eye shadow and silver matte lipstick, and necklaces I’d made myself; there was also a brown hair brush, and some poorly crafted ceramic mugs I made in pottery class), and what stories were read to me there at night before bed (The Princess and the GoblinRebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, The Year at Maple Hill Farm, A Little Princess…).

I haven’t thought of that room in years. It didn’t matter to me until I happened to pick up a book that reminded me so strongly of what it felt like to explore reading when I was young. It was sunlight. Even when it stormed or snowed or I woke up in the middle of the night and snuck into the bathroom to read, it felt like bright hot sun on my hair. It was a glorious, strange, solitary thing. It was everything to me, really. Rapoza’s poems are not groundbreaking literary work, but they’re special because they evoked something unbelievably powerful for me as a reader, and when it comes down to it, that is all a book is desperate to do.

Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back…And How You Can Too, Shauna James Ahern

On Monday night, I was up until 2:30am with a stomach crisis. I’m the worst when it comes to self-diagnosing via the internet (oh how I regret the day Web MD debuted!), and since my husband was visiting his family in Colorado, I had no one to stop me from looking up every possible cause of my distress. By midnight, I had narrowed it down to either food poisoning from an unknown source or a reaction to drinking a banana and mango smoothie I’d made for dinner. Before I began Googling, I didn’t know that both of those foods can have an adverse effect on a  person with a latex allergy (which I happen to have), and I’ve eaten both many times before, although never together.

Of course, I have no real way of knowing what caused my stomachache, but I’m used to that. For close to twenty years, I had an undiagnosed intolerance to lactose, and since I happily drank milk with dinner every night, I had terrible pain just about every day. Looking back, our best estimate is that I developed the problem at three or four when I went from being an enthusiastic eater to one of the pickiest people ever. I was too young to be able to explain to my parents the deep-seated fear I was developing of food, and so many children go through fussy eating phases that, while concerned with the change, neither my doctor nor parents realized the extent of the problem. (Now, of course, I suspect I would have been diagnosed in under six months, but it was a different time.)

By the time I was seven years old, I was so good at hiding my stomach problems that I had everyone convinced I was just a difficult eater. The truth is, so much of my energy was focused on pretending I was fine that it never occurred to me to consider another solution. I thought, much like Shauna James Ahern, that I was just a low-energy, sickly sort of person. I didn’t see food as fuel, as pleasure, as anything but a necessity I approached three times a day with dread.

When I discovered the truth at twenty, it was both a relief and heartbreaking. Most of my favorite foods were full of dairy, and it was too much for a college kid to give up all of them at once. I was, at best, half-assed about my approach to eating better until 2008 when I was invited on a three-week rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. There was no question in my mind that I couldn’t consume dairy on the river; it was already an experience far outside of my comfort zone and I didn’t want to risk being crippled by cramps.

I can’t even describe how life changing the experience was, on many levels; the one that sticks with me most though is how different my body felt.  For the first time, maybe ever, my body was completely free of the thing that was hurting it the most, and food tasted so much better when I didn’t spend the hours after eating curled up in agony. I felt like a super hero those first few weeks, like I’d been gifted with powers I could never have dreamed of.

Since then, I’ve learned to feed myself the way my body needs to be fed. Sometimes I still find myself apologizing for inconveniencing people when I’m visiting, but I know it’s worth it. I think that was part of the reason I was so upset on Monday. I knew everything I’d eaten that day was good for me, and yet I felt just as awful as I did when I was a kid. I couldn’t sleep, so I pulled out my Kindle and looked for a book that might relax me. I’d purchased Gluten-Free Girl a few years ago and only gotten around to reading the first few chapters. I dove back into it, a new-found kinship blossoming with this woman I’d never met. Yes, I thought, clutching a useless hot water bottle to my belly. She gets it.

Admittedly, I had to skip over the recipes she shares because my body was not interested in considering any combination of ingredients in that moment, but I’ve gone back and bookmarked most of them to try now that I’m feeling better. I may not be gluten-free, but I see the benefit of a diet low in wheat and high in delicious local ingredients. More than a collection of recipes though, she shares her journey of not only adjusting her diet to accommodate celiac’s disease, but of learning to rejoice in food. Her excitement is contagious.

 

For more about Shauna James Ahern, head over here. Seriously, you won’t regret it. Fair warning though: I just lost an hour perusing recipes when I should have been working…

Untitled, Siegfried Sassoon

This has been a tough week, so I’m just going to leave this poem here. I’m reading it once for every friend or family member of mine currently going through hard times, and it will be a comfort to know so many more eyes will see it. Hopefully, it will bring some small comfort to others who need it as well.

Untitled

When I’m alone’ – the words tripped off his tongue
As though to be alone were nothing strange.
‘When I was young,’ he said; ‘when I was young . . .’

I thought of age, and loneliness, and change.
I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone,
And how unlike the selves that meet, and talk,
And blow the candles out, and say good-night.

Alone . . . The word is life endured and known.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.