Waterwings, Cathy Song

We’re on vacation this week in Kauai. We don’t take vacations very often because we live so far from family that we spend most of our travel time and budget visiting the people we love, but this is one of our favorite places to return to. My husband and I have been coming for years now, and every time, I’m struck by the island’s stillness set in a vast sea, by the pride of the people in their state, in the protective sense of community that extends to inhabitants and land alike.

I wanted to share this beloved poem by Cathy Song, a wonderful Hawaiian poet, to commemorate our first day of “rest” (as different as that may look seven months pregnant with a toddler in tow). Every time we come here, I find new stories that could only be told in or about Hawaii, but this piece I love because it feels both of its place and universal.


The mornings are his,
blue and white
like the tablecloth at breakfast.
He’s happy in the house,
a sweep of the spoon
brings the birds under his chair.
He sings and the dishes disappear.

Or holding a crayon like a candle,
he draws a circle.
It is his hundredth dragonfly.
Calling for more paper,
this one is red-winged
and like the others,
he wills it to fly, simply
by the unformed curve of his signature.

Waterwings he calls them,
the floats I strap to his arms.
I wear an apron of concern,
sweep the morning of birds.
To the water he returns,
plunging where it’s cold,
moving and squealing into sunlight.
The water from here seems flecked with gold.

I watch the circles
his small body makes
fan and ripple,
disperse like an echo
into the sum of water, light and air.
His imprint on the water
has but a brief lifespan,
the flicker of a dragonfly’s delicate wing.

This is sadness, I tell myself,
the morning he chooses to leave his wings behind,
because he will not remember
that he and beauty were aligned,
skimming across the water, nearly airborne,
on his first solo flight.
I’ll write “how he could not
contain his delight.”
At the other end,
in another time frame,
he waits for me—
having already outdistanced this body,
the one that slipped from me like a fish,
floating, free of itself.

Either the Beginning or the End of the World, Terry Farish

I just checked the archives, and according to my own tags, I only read two YA books in 2016, and two in 2015. I couldn’t believe it was true, so I went to my next source – the Kindle library on my phone – and according to that, I must have mistagged at least one post last year. Depending on whether or not I consider Alan Bradley’s Flavia deLuce series to be YA, which I’m on the fence about, I could possibly count up to three more, but I was still shocked. I consider myself to be both an advocate for and great lover of Young Adult fiction, and yet apparently, I now read more memoirs, biographies, and poetry than I do YA! Without a doubt, mystery and urban fantasy still claim the top spots, but without data, I would have put YA right up there with them. I don’t when that shift started taking place (apparently, sometime in 2014), but it does explain why it took me longer than I expected to get through Farish’s new book.

51rvex-bhvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_She is an absolutely brilliant writer. The poet in her blends stunningly with her work with immigrant and refugee communities in New Hampshire to create stories that are as unique as they are powerful. Her book The Good Braider remains in my top twenty more than five years after reading it. Either the Beginning or the End of the World is no less lovely. Written about a young woman growing up on the New Hampshire seacoast with her father, a struggling fisherman, Sophea finds herself falling in love with a PTSD vet just as her estranged Cambodian mother and grandmother make their way back into her lives.

I have many friends who have made trips over the last decade to Cambodia. To a person, each has told me what a spectacular and heartbreaking country it is – not because of any ongoing poverty, or awe-inspiring landscape, or charming handicrafts made in quaint villages – but because it had an entire generation forcibly and violently disappeared. This had led to an unprecedented sense of community between the people who live there; one man told me that if he was fortunate enough to get a job, it was only right he share that work with a brother or cousin or uncle – if he didn’t, he might have more, but that man would have nothing. Always, he told me, we’d like more work, but it’s better to share what we have.

Farish winds the brutal history of the country into her book with subtle power. Her protagonist is a girl on the brink of independence, a young woman who has little concept of her own past, much less that of an entire people. She has been raised by her American father, but she comes of age with her Cambodian family, and their presence in her life, while often a frustration and betrayal for her, is all the more powerful to me in the America we live in today.

Should I Still Wish, John W. Evans

I don’t know how the heart makes decisions. Maybe love is something born again in different bodies so it can keep moving forward. (loc 819)

It’s hard to write about a friend’s grief. John and I are not close, but I see him with his family often enough. His youngest son and mine went to daycare together for a few months. Practically a year before that, we were at a barbeque together in my neighbors yard, and all the boys – his three, our neighbors’ two – were running and screaming while the adults ate outside, me casting an ever watchful eye on the tiniest member of the wolf pack, who chose the moment right after my first bite to fill his entire bouncer seat with the kind of mess only the keepers of a bunch of boys could raise a glass of wine to, and laugh at.

51y1utsranl-_sx322_bo1204203200_He’s that kind of friend – a person I see at birthday parties and on Halloween, or occasionally when he’s picking up his kids from his mother-in-law, who lives just three houses down from us. I probably know her better than him now, since she often welcomes my wandering son into her home, overflowing, as it is, with her easy-going love and an abundant collection of dump trucks and stuffed animals. We don’t share close confidences or go on vacations together, but I enjoy both the John I see at the park or in an overcrowded kitchen and the one I encounter on the page. The one is boisterous and quick-witted, the other, neurotic and searching. When we stop to chat, he is confident – simultaneously the brilliant Stanford lecturer and the father of three bright, energetic boys. He is only overshadowed by his wife, who is one of the most straightforward people I’ve ever met. It’s hard to imagine her functioning at any level below excellence, and yet she makes me laugh and feel immediately comfortable and happy, a genetic disposition I envy, since I’m more likely to identify with the pen and ink sketches of John’s anxiety than with Cait’s welcoming competence.

Reading this book was an exercise for that anxiety. I simultaneously loved it and couldn’t stop thinking about whether I was intruding. Who am I to know how he and Cait fell in love, or how, eight years on, he feels when he has to enter the woods? Not a stranger, to enjoy the rise and fall of intermingled grief and joy from a distance, nor a close friend, who might already know these vulnerabilities scrawled so gorgeously across the page. I am in between. I think too much about it, and it makes me laugh because the John contained in these pages thinks too much too.

I suspect that people who know him better might gently urge that he live a little more in the moment, and that both of the women he loves, his first wife and his second, would not hold him accountable for either the highs or the lows he experiences. Such is the blessing of being loved by a non-writer. I can’t speak for painters or dancers or cinematographers, or their partners, but we writers are, in general, an overanalyzing breed. We run the bad connections on repeat as much as the good, our brains searching for what we missed, what we destroyed, what we could have done to make our lives easier.

My sister-in-law, a neuroscience post-doc, once simplified the science of it for me. She said, “You’re making the connections stronger, you know. Every time you rethink the memories, bad or good, you’re building them up.” And after that, I started a meditation practice for when the past crept up on me. I would instead imagine relentlessly a tree, or an expanse of sand, or a curled wave, until the urge to flagellate myself, or wallow, passed.

This works for me because I need it to – I need to live mostly on the peaks or trails right now, because becoming a mother has made my already thin skin translucent when it comes to the valleys of the world. There’s no room to punish myself for not knowing how to live perfectly in the past when the world is presenting, on a daily basis, a pain and degradation I could hardly have imagined even six months ago.

This spring, my son’s brother will be born into a different world, one overflowing with stories of grief rather than reconciliation – of John on the mountaintop paralyzed by tragedy instead of John on a street corner, raising signs of tolerance with his children and wife. We need both stories to remind us, however hard it may be, that we’re alive. Not every person we’ve loved, or every person who deserves to be, but us. We are here. We are a collection of the tragedies and exultations of existence. We are carved from the pain into a call for compassion, and we might fail a thousand times at joy, but it still exists, if we wish it.

On Turning Ten, Billy Collins

I had a book I was going to post about today – that I should be posting about, since I promised my friend John, and his editor, that my review would be up – but the reading of it has been so sad, so perfectly January, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to rush through. It’s not a long book, and it’s not nearly as aching a story as his first (if you haven’t read it, and you can bear a brilliantly written tragedy, you should), but it’s harder because he and his family are friends now, while in 2014, he was barely an acquaintance.

I’ll have it done by February, for sure, and I look forward to telling you about it, because John’s one of those writer friends I love and hate for being so damn good at what he does. In the meantime, here’s a little bittersweet Collins to carry you into what promises to be a divisive weekend.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

The October Daye books, Seanan McGuire

Happy New Year, folks! I realize for most people, this is the first (dreaded, though hopefully, abbreviated) work week back after the holidays, but since we decided to travel a little later this year, I’m still bouncing around the east coast visiting family on both sides of the proverbial tree. It’s strange to be seeing so many people who are back from vacation and feeling – let’s charitably say “a little grumpy” – rather than catching them in their most festive moods.

cover_rrI’m not sure I’d suggest it as a general practice. Too many people have started new diets this week, or all of a sudden have to get up early to go to the gym rather than meet us before work to enjoy a bear claw while our toddler climbs all over them. It’s not my fault that they’re in the middle of a detox while I’m still in a treat baking frenzy! (Okay. It is my fault, but to be fair, I’m so over-sugared at this point that I feel like my whole body has been set to perma-vibrate. I have to give these cookies away or die trying…)

In the meantime, I’m just trying to get the stink of 2016 off by binge reading a little urban fantasy. I couldn’t even pick one of the books to review because in the last month, I’ve read six of the ten that have been published, and it wouldn’t be fair to try to limit my love of Toby Daye to just one volume (except book 4 – this isn’t much of a spoiler, but I hate storylines that center around the protagonist being falsely accused. It’s one of my least favorite tropes, and unfortunately this book is integral to the larger plot, so it can’t be skipped. It just wasn’t my favorite.)

She’s my favorite kind of heroine – self-sacrificing, unfailingly sarcastic, a lone wolf who’s absolutely plagued by people who love her and won’t let her go careening off without, at a minimum, moral support. She’s been the perfect remedy to the chaos of December, the onset of head colds, and the insane desire of children to be fed three relatively well-balanced meals a day while wearing passably clean clothes. As a bonus, when I checked out her website, I saw that McGuire is already slated to release at least three more volumes in the next three years, which is great news for future me! (Present me is still content to have four more books on standby to get through the Northern Hemisphere’s most detested month.)

Of course, this means I “have” to finish those books, and then read something more…nutritious in the next two weeks, since even I can’t justify posting about this series twice in a month. Oh January – this is why everybody hates you…

It’s almost Christmas, and for once, we’re not getting on a plane (at least not until next week). We won’t see our families until New Year’s, instead opting for a cozy holiday with our own tree and the company of our dear friends and neighbors on Christmas morning. In the past, we’ve alternated between my husband’s family in Colorado and mine in New Hampshire, and this would have been my family’s year; however, this Sunday marks a momentous day for me and mine – the day of my mother’s retirement from 37 years of ministry in the UCC.

Her ministry has been instrumental in shaping who I am. Her particular sense of humor, her tireless efforts for the justice and dignity of the most vulnerable among us, and her enthusiastic acceptance of all people and all faiths has influenced more people than I’m sure she could ever imagine. She is far too humble to think of herself as a tide changer, but those of us who know her know the truth – she is a light, a warrior of love, and a beacon for those who love the church and those who have been mistreated by it. She is dearly loved and deeply admired for her perspective, her compassion, and her faith, and while I know she has many more years of world-changing in her, she’ll be doing it from a different venue now.

In honor of this incredible transition, today I’m sharing a poem she wrote about Christmas. In addition to her work in ministry, she’s the author of more than twenty books and spent a year as a poet laureate, in addition to having taught writing for several decades. For me, there is no better way to ring in this holiday weekend than by considering her words and the overwhelming love she has for this difficult, hard to love world.

Improv on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch who Stole Christmas, Maren C. Tirabassi
The grinch on the inside of Who you and Who me
who shrinks from the carols and ducks under the tree …

The grinch who fears weight gain and avoids every store,
with chestnut-roast muzak and wreaths on the door …

The grinch who dreads greedies and commercials for toys,
and deplores the way sadness is wrapped in fake joy …

This grinch has a heart that is just the right size,
but it hurts so at Christmas that it is no surprise …

That with all of the darkness, the hurry, the haste,
with all of the “must-do’s,” the parties and waste …

The grinch on the inside of you-grouch and me-beast,
the grinch who hates candlelight service and feast …

The grinch who is lonely, and feels like a stranger,
the grinch who’s disgusted when I rhyme with “manger” …

Finds that all of the stories of this Christmas season,
the Scrooges and Nutcrackers point to one reason.

It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Fred Claus,
and the Polar Express are all written because –

There’s a mystery here, there’s a wonder, a glow,
that comes not from a package or starlight on snow …

That is not about family with its comfort or grief,
and is not about having some perfect belief …

It’s all about God, who won’t come the right way.
who jumps out of the church, as well as the sleigh …

God who needs diapers but takes myrrh in a pinch –
this God who sends babies is in love with each Grinch.

A City Dreaming: A Novel, Daniel Polansky

It began with an argument as to what was the quickest way to get from Greenpoint to SoHo. Stockdale maintained that if you grabbed the Z train from Nassau Street, you could be sipping a gin and tonic on Houston within ten minutes. D8mon, who had never had much luck with the Z, spoke rather passionately for the % train— true, sometimes it did not come for hours, and sometimes it came twice within two minutes, but once you got on, it was a straight shot across the Abandando Bridge, twenty minutes at the very most, and there was a dining car that sold the loveliest little bits of finger food. Admittedly, they only accepted payment in guineas, but one never knew what was in one’s pockets, and sometimes you could trade with one of the other passengers.

41pelabcyal-_sx331_bo1204203200_It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever ridden the New York subway system, that vast esophageal labyrinth, that there is more to it than the MTA will admit. Indeed, there are few places in which the world that M inhabited and the world known to the rest of us parallel each other so closely. Who, standing on a trash-strewn platform in a far corner of Brooklyn after midnight, has not had the sensation that if they let the 3 pass them by, the next train would offer passage to some strange and foreign existence? Who hasn’t waited until right before the door closed, only to see their conviction dissipate in the face of reality’s cold waters, and the certainty that the next train won’t roll past for another half hour? (loc 401-411)

I usually have time each night to read a few chapters before bed, and this book turned out to be ideally suited for that. Despite its title, which explicitly calls itself out as a novel, the book is written as connected short stories – one per chapter – that mold into a year in the live of M, an apathetic drifter with a problem conscience.

M, superficially at least, is content to be back in Brooklyn, drinking in the same bar every day and keeping his head down while he grifts and sleeps his way through the borough after spending years travelling the world. He, like many of his associates, lives in limbo between mundane reality and a magic fueled existence and is consequently blessed with something akin to immortality. Far from making him ambitious, or a hero though, M is bored. His needs are few, but his friends are needy, and his enemies powerful and insane. Such a combination doesn’t make for a restful existence.

Polansky is a sharp, witty, original voice, and I believe even those who aren’t fans of the urban fantasy genre could find a lot to love about this book. It’s a strange one – there was a chapter toward the end that was clearly going to delve so deep into horror that I just skipped it (I made the mistake, years ago, of reading a similar section of Neil Gaiman’s first volume of Sandman, and I still haven’t been able to scrub the images from my brain). I suspect the section was important, but the structure of the book was forgiving enough that it was my choice to excise it and keep reading anyway.

This is the book I plan to give to all of my too smart for their own good oddball friends this year. I know it will amuse them as it did me, and it will trigger the imagination in a way that should be done as winter sets in and synapses start to dull. We all need a dreamy world during the dark days, a flight of fancy to remind us of both easier days, and of how easy we have it when sunk deep into the turning page.

Love Warrior: A Memoir, Glennon Doyle Melton

In the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving today. For some people, that means a day of cooking, of family, of love or drama or both. For others, it’s incredibly lonely, whether they’re surrounded by people or not. Some will gorge themselves and watch football. Others will go hungry, or be forced to work at Black Friday sales that have bled over to the holiday. Some will be filled with gratitude while others are angry, frustrated, hurting.

love-warrior-fullc1There is no day, holiday or otherwise, with the overarching power to bring joy to all. Life isn’t like that. It isn’t fair. It doesn’t dole out goodness because the calendar demands it. That’s why – regardless of circumstance – we can all use a little of Glennon Doyle Melton’s wisdom today.

This is a gentle reminder that love and pain and grief are bundled together, that they are meant to coexist, and that you are not irredeemable if you feel more of the pain than you do the love right now. You are not broken. You are a warrior.

Fight on.

What my friends didn’t know about me and I didn’t know about my daughter is that people who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpless vigil to our pain.

There on the floor, I promise myself that I’ll be that kind of mother, that kind of friend. I’ll show up and stand humble in the face of a loved one’s pain. I’ll admit I’m as empty-handed, dumbstruck, and out of ideas as she is. I won’t try to make sense of things or require more than she can offer. I won’t let my discomfort with her pain keep me from witnessing it for her. I’ll never try to grab or fix her pain, because I know that for as long as it takes, her pain will also be her comfort. It will be all she has left. Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I loved well. Here is my proof that I paid the price. So I’ll just show up and sit quietly and practice not being God with her. I’m so sorry, I’ll say. Thank you for trusting me enough to invite me close. I see your pain and it’s real. I’m so sorry.

The Journey of the Warrior. This is it. The journey is learning that pain, like love, is simply something to surrender to. It’s a holy space we can enter with people only if we promise not to tidy up. So I will sit with my pain by letting my own heart break. I will love others in pain by volunteering to let my heart break with theirs. I’ll be helpless and broken and still— surrendered to my powerlessness. Mutual surrender, maybe that’s an act of love. Surrendering to this thing that’s bigger than we are: this love, this pain. The courage to surrender comes from knowing that the love and pain will almost kill us, but not quite. (p. 206)

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: A Flavia de Luce novel, Alan Bradley

It’s rare to read a series – even a beloved one – and have the eighth book be one’s favorite. I find that if I’m reading a series with three to seven books, it’s typically the third or fourth that I like best; however, any author writing in the same world for much longer than that starts to blur the details.

51ldoulkawlThis isn’t to say I don’t love a long series. I do. They may be my favorite type of books because I get to come back again and again to beloved characters. I wouldn’t trade a good series for anything, and yet I accept that they get fuzzy. The individual volumes are usually less important to me than the overarching storylines, and I’m often so excited for a new book that I devour it in hours or days and then despair that it will be years until the next one appears.

This has certainly been true for some of the Flavia de Luce novels. I remember several of the earliest ones quite clearly, and then it gets vague, and then the seventh book takes our young sleuth from England to Canada (which helps tremendously in separating its storyline from others), and then this newest volume, which I expected to relish and then lump in with the others, stood out above the rest.

When I was young, I read all the Nancy Drew novels our library had, and I remember enjoying them, although even then, I found the repetition of certain facts about Nancy to be a tiresome waste of pages. Nevertheless, there was a shortage of books about girls solving crimes, and I read anything on the subject I could find. Oh, to have had Flavia to read back then. If anything, she’s more like Harriet the Spy then Nancy Drew, although she has the composure of a woman much older than twelve.

She’s not well liked, and she’s constantly getting into trouble for nosing in where she doesn’t belong. Her family life is awful, and she relies on her keen intelligence to find a place for herself in a bitterly cold and lonely world. Unraveling murders is cathartic for Flavia. She is a scientist with a burning desire to break down the facts to their logical conclusion, and after reading eight books and one short story, I haven’t tired of watching her do it.

My heart breaks for her though. She is funny and bright and although she doesn’t admit it even to herself, she obviously hopes that the people she admires will see her for who she truly is if she continues her work. For all of her bravery and keen observations though, she is only twelve – eleven when she solved her first murder –  those years pre-puberty are lonely under the best of circumstances, and hers are not the best.

In this book especially, I couldn’t help but see the neglect, the coping mechanisms she’s had to forge and rely on increasingly throughout the series. Flavia at her core is absolute steel, and it’s both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch the naivete get stripped away as she is forced to grow up. One might think witnessing the carnage of multiple murders would be the most disturbing thing for a child’s psyche, but for this girl, the science behind death is the carrot to a life that is otherwise all stick.

The Bad Decisions Playlist, Michael Rubens

I’ve been a fan of Michael Rubens since my friend Ruby first recommended The Sheriff of Yrnameer four years ago. His first book was a complete win for me – a hilarious space opera that I recommended to all my sci-fi/fantasy loving friends – that I now keep on tap for waiting in doctor’s offices or at the mechanic’s when I need a mental boost.

His second book, on the other hand, a YA novel called Sons of the 613, put me through the emotional wringer. Rubens has a gift for humor, but like most comedians, he is deeply in touch with the raw underbelly of the human experience. Both Sons of the 613 and The Bad Decisions Playlist flirt with laughter, but in the spirit of truthful YA, are grounded in disaster and pain.

25897672This makes sense to me. Adolescence is a shit show, and anyone who claims otherwise just doesn’t remember how hard it is to have everything shaken up and shaken hard all at once. I say this as a person who was well-adjusted, a successful student, close to my parents, and blessed with wonderful friends – I had so much, and yet I remember so much pain. I lost friends to illness and car accidents. I was treated horribly by boys who had seemed so kind. I watched in terrified silence while girls all around me starved and purged and did anything and everything possible to make themselves fit in. I still remember sitting in my psych class one morning and seeing my friend come in late, her head completely shorn of her beautiful black curls – she had spent an hour cutting them off with safety scissors in the bathroom at 7am for reasons too personal to share, even all these years later.

High school is a gauntlet. There’s no free pass. There’s no person pretty enough or popular enough to escape the human condition. And Rubens’ Playlist recognizes that. His protagonist is a stoner with an abundance of talent and a bad attitude – honestly, I hated him for about ninety percent of the book. I kept flashing back to my experience reading The Catcher and the Rye in high school, and how I wanted to punt Holden Caulfield for being such a whiny, narcissistic jerk. I didn’t understand then how deeply troubled and unhappy Caulfield was, or how his perception of the world could be the same as many of my classmates, because for me, adults had always been safe, helpful. For all the pain I felt, I always had the protection of a family who loved and supported me.

I’m not seventeen anymore. I met too many people in college who hurt me and themselves because they hadn’t received the care they needed for mental illness, for abuse they’d suffered, for wounds left too long untended. Then I spent too many years teaching and working with both young children and teenagers not to have seen a whole spectrum of caregiver behavior that floored me with its apathy, ignorance, and anger. I’ve witnessed too much suffering now not to know how or why some teenagers choose to numb themselves with drugs, alcohol, casual sex.

Austin Methune is an ordinary teenager. He’s hurting, he’s lonely and a little lost. He’s struggling with his relationship with his mother, and he doesn’t see the big picture. He cares more about impressing girls than he does just about anything else, and although much of this book is a love story, the part of Austin’s journey that was most powerful to me was his development of empathy and his ability to overcome his own buffoonish self-interest to become a good friend.

I like love stories, but I love friendship. People relying on others, trusting them, becoming vulnerable and allowing them to witness it? That is a love worthy of adolescence. That is a love that is fierce and bright and true. Learning that there’s more to friendship than just showing up to smoke weed and talk about girls is a story worth telling because being a kid is hard, and being a teenager is basically impossible. Friends are the lifeline. They show up for the hard stuff, and they are family if the whole blood relations thing doesn’t pan out.

Rubens gets that. He understands how complicated it is to be a teenage boy – as evidenced in his last two books – and instead of running from that, or sugarcoating it, he embraces it. He says, “It’s ok. I know this is messy, and that you might be a little bit of an asshole, but you’re still loved. Your story is important, and your voice should be heard.”

Bonus Tuesday post

When you read to a child, when you put a book in a child’s hands, you are bringing that child news of the infinitely varied nature of life. You are an awakener.
Paula Fox

A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend reached out to me to ask if I’d be willing to participate in a short interview about our family reading habits. After years of teaching preschool, I’d had a lot of practice discussing the importance of reading to young children, and I jumped at the chance chat with Kumkum Pandey. She’s working on a nonprofit initiative to promote reading to young children and is looking for more input from parents about the challenges and realities of reading on a daily basis.

I volunteered to signal boost for her because I know my audience – we’re a bunch of book-obsessed nerds, and regardless of what titles may be on our individual to-read lists, we’re connected by a passion for the written word. If you’re interested in extending help to a project that will try to tear down barriers for parents who’d like to read more to their children but may not have access, time, or support, consider participating in a ten minute interview with Ms. Pandey.

If you’re interested, or have further questions, post a comment and I will connect you with Ms. Pandey via email.

An Address in Amsterdam, Mary Dingee Fillmore

When I was nineteen, I spent two days in Amsterdam. I was on an art history trip with eighty classmates (my university had a study abroad program in the Netherlands, and during our semester, we took two trips as a group – one to Paris and one to Amsterdam). It was late September, and we hadn’t been in Europe long. While I made use of the fact that the drinking age was lower than at home, I had no interest in seeking out any of Amsterdam’s seedier attractions, and a few friends and I happily spent our time at the Van Gogh Museum, renting bicycles (completely in awe of such a bike friendly city, having come straight from Boston, where cyclists must be at least half mad to compete with traffic), and standing in front of the Anne Frank House. I remember the keen disappointment mixed with relief that the museum was closed for repairs. I desperately wanted to see it, but I also remembered how sobering it had been a year before when I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC on spring break with the very same women standing beside me.

an-address-in-amsterdam3I’ve always found World War II to be a fascinating period of history. My grandfathers both fought – my mother’s father, a firebrand even onto his death at 90, told me about being a part of the liberation of Dachau, of how he carried chocolate bars to give to the children there (it only occurred to me recently that he must have left out many details too horrific to relive, or to speak aloud to his granddaughter), while my father’s father, always a gentle and courageous man more comfortable behind the scenes, found his place teaching others how to parachute out of planes. When I was in school, WWII was a topic covered in history every year, and yet it’s only as an adult that I’ve read and learned the stories that have sunk into my heart and haunted me.

This book, borrowed from my best friend, a passionate Jewish woman who has, since we were ten, been teaching me to examine the world from uncomfortable and worthwhile perspectives, is one of the stories that will hover just outside my conscience for the rest of my life. The story evokes Amsterdam – an Amsterdam before the death of 100,000 of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands – with such prismic clarity that I was transported. It was such an exquisite city when I visited, and yet the world as Dingee Fillmore creates it is infinitely more special.

Her heroine, Rachel Klein, is so similar to the girl I remember being when I walked the streets of Amsterdam. She was carefree, a good student, surrounded by loving friends, and anxious to have a boyfriend. She is a good daughter not because she has to be, but because she loves and respects her parents, and their opinion of her matters. She exists in a bubble that every teenager deserves to experience – one where the most exciting and important things in her life are tantalizingly out of reach – but in a present that is still sweet and special and intoxicating.

The Rachel we meet at the beginning of the story and the one we leave at the end are hardly the same person. She is a woman who has watched as one by one, her rights and opportunities have been stripped away, leaving her with nothing but memories of friends and neighbors being beaten and stolen and tortured for the amusement of others. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, after Rachel has just barely escaped yet another belligerent encounter with the Dutch police, she has a moment of bitter insight:

If she had been alone in the world, Rachel would have leapt at him and hit him the way Joost had taught her. They would have locked her up as another crazy Jewish terrorist. Yes, terrorist, she thought, the more they brutalize and go after us, the more they accuse us of being the aggressors. And a terrorist is someone every civilized person is authorized to hate. (p 147)

When I finished this book, I immediately called my friend to let her know how heavy my heart was, how it felt as though it were straining to take in so much sadness, and how it was desperate for fresh air and bright skies. She and I talked, as we have a few times before, about how different a book like this is for each of us – for her, hearing the voices of her people silenced in a number so staggering as to be as incomprehensible as the stars, and for me, buried in guilt wondering if I would have resisted, if I would have helped to save my neighbors, or if I would have stayed safe.

When I was a kid, another dear friend’s mother had posted this quote by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant minister, on her refrigerator, and I remember staring at it every time I was in her kitchen:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Back then, the part that chilled me was the idea that no one would be left to stand up for me, but as an adult, it is the sick fear that I might not do so for my neighbors. The world we share is not so different from the one Dingee Fillmore paints – the gap between privilege and oppression is as razor thin as it was in 1940. The resistance people like Rachel were brave enough to put up is viewed differently in hindsight than it is in any given moment. Those who are comfortable will always be made nervous by upheaval to the status quo, and those who ignore hatred in its many forms will always be caught unaware when the day of reckoning arrives.

It frightens me anew to read about how insidious and normalized oppression can be, how it slips through cracks until it has wound itself into and around everything, choking out reason and freedom. Dingee Fillmore includes certain details – the purchasing of Stars of David, the signs forbidding Jews from entering shops, the loss of access to bikes and public transportation – as almost an afterthought, as surely they must have seemed to many people at the time. When rights are taken away gradually, people accept the new normal much more willingly, even though to us, it’s obvious what it was – a chilling shift in political perspective. Instead, the moments seared into Rachel’s brain, as they undoubtedly would have been for most people, were seeing a friend’s home ransacked, or listening from behind closed curtains as families were dragged into the street in the middle of the night, or watching as her parents argued and grew thin under the occupation.

This book is truly a love story between a young woman and Amsterdam. It is about her incredible resilience and the undeniable horror she had to face. Rachel is just one woman, but her experiences remind me of all the untold stories – the victims and persecutors, those who were complicit in their silence, and the ordinary people who lived and fought and died, transformed into heroes through their willingness to risk everything for justice and freedom.

To read more from Mary Dingee Fillmore, head here.

Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy Beautiful Life, Glennon Doyle Melton

You can hide from the sun, but it won’t take that personally. It’ll never, ever punish you for hiding. You can stay in the dark for years or decades, and when you finally step outside, it’ll be there. It was there the whole time, shining and shining. It’ll still be there, steady and bright as ever, just waiting for you to notice, to come out, to be warmed. All those years, I thought of God and light and the sun as judgmental, but they weren’t. The sunrise was my daily invitation from God to come back to life. (p. 19)

51dss9gpynlI was introduced to Melton’s work via my husband’s cousin, who read this first book of hers while on a year long trip around the world. She read a hundred books while they were traveling,  which covered topics as diverse as immigration policy, social work, international adoption, racism in the prison system – I could go on, but as I’m sure you can imagine, she is a woman with a great heart and a passion for difficult learning.

Many of the books she read sounded interesting, and I marked them to come back to when I have less toddler brain, but this one intrigued me. I followed the link to Melton’s blog and was instantly hooked. Here was a woman with a difficult past who was using her experiences to build a powerful and loving network of women. I’m privileged to know similar beacons in my own life, but it’s always heart opening to meet another.

If I am in the habit of turning my back on others, it is because I haven’t learned that God approaches us in the disguise of other people. If I am confident but not humble, my mind is closed. If my mind is closed, my heart is closed. A closed heart is so sad. It is the end. A heart cannot grow any larger if it decides to let no more God in. There is always room for more. A heart expands exactly as much as her owner allows. (pp. 175-176)

Melton is easy to read. She’s self-deprecating and funny, and it’s obvious she has honed her skills on her blog. She has the conversational style that I enjoy in a memoir, and I found myself eager to come back to her wisdom each evening after putting my son to bed. I was often reading new blog posts in conjunction with this story, which makes for a fascinating blending of real time and the past.

At the moment, she’s getting ready to go on a speaking tour for her new book, which I’m anxious to get my hands on, and I keep hoping her tour will be updated to come to a city near me. I don’t often have much interest in hearing authors speak (let’s just say there’s a reason why most use the written word), but her events have a way of becoming a massive empowerment of self and community love.

I find the idea of such a gathering both intriguing and terrifying. Given that I’m not the sort of person who even likes to hug, the possibility of being surrounded by hundred or thousands of emotionally stirred people strikes me as potentially the worst decision ever, and yet, her words resonate with me. Her ideas make me want to act. Her ability to make a difference, even with all the poor decisions she’s made, is inspiring. She isn’t held back by imperfection. She doesn’t point fingers or demand retribution. She simply tries. She tries to be the kind of person she wants to be, failures and all, and to me, that is the distillation of goodness – not perfection, but struggle and perseverance.

The only meaningful thing we can offer one another is love. Not advice, not questions about our choices, not suggestions for the future, just love. (p. 198)





The Accidental Terrorist, Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, William Shunn

Over the month I took to read this book, I recommended it to twelve people. My husband was the first, and he’d finished it before I got through the third chapter. Two of the people I told were former Mormons themselves, and they not only wanted a copy but also told me they were going to pick it up for a few of their family members and friends back in Utah. The fact that I spread the word far and wide makes an odd kind of sense given this was the memoir of a questioning young man striking out on his mission in the great white north.

accidental-750pxI grew up with several Mormon friends (the Church of Latter Day Saints shared a parking lot with my high school, so we had maybe more than the average number of Mormon students for a small town in New Hampshire). Every single one of them could be described as the nicest person I ever met. Unfailingly friendly, kind, and considerate, I was never prosthelytized to or even subject to any conversation about God while with them.

Looking back, I don’t know whether it’s just that teenagers – even those growing up in a religion that expects generous time to be spent on the topic of conversion – just want to blend, to survive those four years without being labeled or judged, or if it’s that the specific people who would be friends with me were a little less devout. All I knew about them then was that we had fun goofing around in class and at play practices, and that they belonged to a church that required a lot more time than mine did.

It wasn’t until I started reading this book that I had any real concept of the history of the Mormon church. Shunn’s perspective is fascinating because he grew up loving and fearing his religion in equal measure. He had a great respect for those in authority and accepted the lessons he was taught until adulthood. I suspect that some of the information he shares in the book is considered sacred to Mormons, and his writing about it prompted a two-fold reaction in me.

On the one hand, I was incredibly curious about the secret rituals of the church. Ever since I first went to a service with one of my best friends, who’s Greek Orthodox, and was told women were never permitted to go behind a certain screen in the sanctuary, I’ve known I have an obsession for peeking behind the curtain. What could possibly be so sacred? A part of me burns to know, I’m sure in part because my own church is the complete opposite – everything on the table, free to access for anyone regardless of where they might be on their journey with God.

On the other hand, I have a deep respect for all religions, and although I don’t agree with every element of every faith, I do believe people have a right to practice with a sense of safety. People should be able to relax into their faith, to feel secure enough that they can explore a relationship with God, if they so choose. To make naked another faith against the will of its members makes me uncomfortable.

Shunn does an admirable job of balancing this, at least for me. That being said, I’m not a Mormon and have no concept of the history or tenets taught to members, so I recognize that I’m speaking about this as a wholly unaffected outsider. In that position, I found both his personal journey and the extensive history of the church and its founders to be fascinating. He pokes a little fun at the forefathers of the church but is respectful of his contemporaries. Both his story and Joseph Smith’s were absolutely captivating, and I intentionally only allowed myself to read a bit at a time so I could process what I was learning.

I realize it would be in poor taste to make a joke about bringing this book from door to door, but it’s truly been impossible not to want to share it with as many people as I can. If you’re looking for a book to rev up for fall after an indulgent summer, this is it.

You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein

There are plenty books I recommend across the board. It’s rare that I talk about a book that I know won’t appeal to a family friendly audience, but this one – by a comedienne and writer on the sketch show Inside Amy Schumer – is neither family friendly nor intended for all audiences. It’s hilarious and excellently written, but it’s not for everyone.

186c98c0323fd6c5cf1008b23d0e36edIf you’re not familiar with the television show Inside Amy Schumer, you may well be on the list of readers who will want to skip this book. My husband and I stumbled across it right after our son was born, and in a sleepless haze, we burned through most of the episodes over the course of two months, occasionally succumbing to fits of silent laughter, tears streaming down our faces while the baby slept in our arms.

Recently, we watched an episode with a sketch about a lamaze class, and at this point, we’ve probably played that five minute clip about twenty times. We quote it at the park when we run into intolerable or ridiculous parenting, and we quote it at home when our own kid is running around like a tiny naked savage before bathtime.

My husband was also the one who sent me the recommendation for this book. He hadn’t gotten around to finishing it yet, but what he’d read, he knew I’d like. He was right. I ate it up. My favorite chapter was called “Poodle vs wolf.”

One late night when I was working at SNL, I wandered out of my office for a break and saw that some random TV in the hallway was tuned to an interview with Angelina Jolie (I think it was with Charlie Rose, who was shamelessly hitting on her, as is his wont when he interviews a pretty lady). I wandered over to watch, as did Emily, one of the senior writers there at the time and an all-around hilarious and fabulous lady. We both stared at Angelina in awe.

“Isn’t it amazing,” Emily asked, “that we’re the same species she is? It doesn’t even feel like we are the same species.”

“I know,” I said. I continued the riff: It’s like with dogs. A poodle and a wolf are both technically dogs, but based on appearances, it doesn’t make any conceivable sense that they share a common ancestor. We decided that some women are poodles and some women are wolves. And no matter what a wolf does (puts on makeup, or a thong), it will still be a wolf, and no matter what a poodle does (puts on sweatpants), it will always be a poodle.


BUT BEING BEAUTIFUL IS NOT WHAT MAKES YOU A POODLE OR A WOLF. There are millions of beautiful wolf women out there. It’s how much of the beauty feels like work, like maintenance. It’s a very French concept, which is probably why we think every actual poodle was born in France and we always imagine them in berets. (loc 581)

I’ve always struggled with the marriage of femininity and being a woman. Being a mother is something that feels very natural to me, as does caring for others – both of which are considered “feminine” characteristics. Putting on makeup or any outfit that doesn’t include questionably clean jeans and a tee shirt? Makes me feel like a horse in heels. And although I consider myself to be a sensible and reasonably intelligent person, there was genuinely a part of me, when I got married, that expected to wake up the next day ready to wear dresses and enjoy cooking (or at the very least become a competent enough meal planner that every day didn’t look like my first in the kitchen…).

I kept waiting for the moment when I would “grow up” – in this case, “grown up” meaning that I looked and acted the way mothers of my childhood looked and acted. Sure, they all worked outside the home, but they also were primary caregivers, doing the housework, the shopping, the laundry, the child care. (For the record, the fathers I knew and know did share some of that load, and most of them now do much more of it – my own father is the ultimate dish/laundry/vacuum king, and has been for years.)

And even though I’ve never specifically thought of myself as someone struggling with gender identity, reading Klein’s lighthearted take on the issue made me realize that my entire life, I’ve had expectations based on observation that have zero to do with reality, or at least my reality. Those expectations have pressed down on me, led me to spend money on products I don’t need or want simply to try to buy my way into becoming a poodle, when really, being a wolf makes me happy. (Honestly, just the thought of those two animals:  wolves are rugged and have a pack. Poodles are intelligent but have always seemed reserved to me – mild mannered even in their athleticism.)

Like Klein, I have a great admiration for “poodle” women. They seem to sit in their skin so easily, as if being a graceful, elegant, well-mannered woman was no chore at all. (In comparison, I’m currently eating handfuls of Cheerios straight from the box while trying to remember the last time I saw my comb…) Reading her book was much like reading Tina Fey’s, in that it felt like a whisper of truth. It’s a truth I didn’t even know I was looking for, and I’m certain that if I had been, I wouldn’t have expected to find it in this book.

Nevertheless, there it was. A hallelujah moment hidden in plain sight, amongst the jokes and the self-deprecation. I love to laugh, so it shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does when I find wisdom in my favorite escape, when women like me – strong but also questioning – hold some of the answers that I’ve been searching for.