You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds, Jenny Lawson

I’ve been reading The Bloggess (aka Jenny Lawson) for years now. My friend and I have even done our own dramatic readings of various passages from her blog (mostly to delight/terrify the kids in the youth group we were leading at the time). She is hilarious, irreverent, and even in the throes of her own not infrequent physical and mental pain, dedicated to the message the Depression Lies.  Her newest book, You Are Here, is a testament to that idea, and to the possibility that the coping mechanism a person privately uses to keep themselves alive might speak to a wider audience.

you-are-here-jenny-lawsonFor Lawson, her anxiety and depression are so severe that she often must keep her hands busy to prevent them from, in her own words, destroying her. She recognizes that she is her own most dangerous and unpredictable foe, and to combat her body’s desire to hurt itself, she draws. Her pen and ink sketches are as intricate and lovely as they are inspiring. In the year before this book became a reality, Lawson had shared a few of her drawings with her online audience and was surprised by how well-received they were. People were coloring them in and then sharing them back to the community, and each individual take on the original was a mini masterpiece in its own right – a whisper into the void of mental and physical illness that declared I am (still) here.

The drawing below is one of my favorites. Before I had time to read the whole book, I was looking through the pictures with my son, and we stopped on this because he’s obsessed with dandelions. He loves all things yellow, but especially flowers, and the weeds we find on our daily walks – the dandelions and the California bush poppies – are his favorites. He’s quite good at miming the blowing of dandelion seeds, although he’s neither dexterous enough to pick them from the dirt himself or breathy enough to dislodge any of the pods without the help of his fingers. Nevertheless, he doesn’t get tired of pointing out the fields of them growing near our house or watching when I pick one out to blow on.


I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion – those vivid yellow flowers that bloom in the cracks of sidewalks or abandoned lots. Anything that thrives in such strange, broken places holds a special kind of magic. It shines bright and golden for a moment before it withers, but then – when most have given it up for dead – it explodes into an elaborate globe of spiderweb seedlings so fragile that a wind or a wish sends it to pieces.

But the falling apart isn’t the end.

It depends on the falling apart.

Its fragility lets it be carried to new places, to paint more gold in the cracks.

I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion.

But I think, in a way, I already am. (p 59)

This book really found me at the right time. The last few months have been an onslaught of phone calls with friends who have received unexpected and advanced cancer diagnoses, unusual and unresolved test results for all manner of terrible health crises, and my own exhaustion/insomnia cycle that inevitably rears its head when I start to feel powerless to help the people I care about. It hasn’t made for the best start to the year, but reading this book and studying the images that literally saved the life of a person I greatly admire has been a powerful reminder. It’s not that the world is always good, or fair, or easy, but that each person in it – even those who seem beyond saving, or who sometimes wish they were beyond saving – have a place, a purpose, a unique voice capable of remarkable insight and empathy.

Today I changed everything.

Today I took a shower.

Today I kept breathing.

Circle any of the above that apply. They are all a celebration, y’all. (p 138)

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.

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)

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson

And then, at four a.m. I decided that the only thing that would cure my insomnia/ anxiety would be a long walk. In the snow. I pulled a coat on over my nightgown, slipped on my flats, and went downstairs. My foot was killing me as I tiptoed outside, nodding quietly to the confused man at the night desk, who looked puzzled to see me leave in my pajamas. Then I walked out into a New York night, which was muffled by snow, a thick white blanketing of powder that not a single person had put a step into. I could hear a drunk yelling for a cab down the street but it was comforting to not be the only person out in that weather. Sure, I was in my pajamas and I had been stabbed in the foot by arthritis, but at least I was mostly sober and not too far from a warm bed.

My foot ached. As I took a step the sharp pain shot all the way up to my spine. And that’s when I just said, “Oh fuck it,” and carefully stepped out of my shoes into the gleaming white snow.1005_furiously-happy

It was freezing, but the cold effortlessly numbed my feet and aching hands. I walked quietly, barefoot, to the end of the block, leaving my shoes behind to remind me how to find my way home. I stood at the end of the street, catching snow in my mouth, and laughed softly to myself as I realized that without my insomnia and anxiety and pain I’d never have been awake to see the city that never sleeps asleep and blanketed up for winter. I smiled and felt silly, but in the best possible way.

As I turned and looked back toward the hotel I noticed that my footprints leading out into the city were mismatched. One side was glistening, small and white. The other was misshapen from my limp and each heel was pooled with spots of bright red blood. It struck me as a metaphor for my life. One side light and magical. Always seeing the good. Lucky. The other side bloodied, stumbling. Never quite able to keep up. (loc 833-846)

Jenny Lawson, better known across the internet as The Bloggess, has been a hero of mine for many years nows. Online, she has long been known as a beacon of hope, insanity, laughter and truth to a proudly peculiar tribe of people. I read her blog faithfully, content to follow along as she writes about everything from the effect depression and chronic pain have on her, to a life-long love of crazily taxidermied animals, to the outrageous “arguments” she has with her husband Victor.

She is one of only a handful of people who can make me laugh to tears (and not occasionally – a few times a month, at least). Lawson is also an incredibly brave and vulnerable writer, and her ability to open up discussions about topics often deemed shameful by polite society has saved lives. I loved her first book, but there’s no doubt she has only gotten better with this second one.

Her epic ability to weave her life stories into a book that speaks to its readers on so many levels is undeniable. Instead of sugarcoating her own struggles, she presents them bare faced – half the time as jester, the other half as bedraggled seer – recognizing that many readers will walk away from her book feeling more known than they ever have before.

Her life has been anything but easy, and although she has achieved fame and fortune she probably never imagined, Lawson hasn’t lost her perspective in the least. She’s still a friend to hurting souls who need a place to lay down their burdens and laugh for awhile. She’s still a person who understands intimately just how heavy those burdens can be. She’s still a treasure to those of us driven to speak about the unspeakable.

Do you know about the spoons? Because you should.

The Spoon Theory was created by a friend of mine, Christine Miserandino, to explain the limits you have when you live with chronic illness. Most healthy people have a seemingly infinite number of spoons at their disposal, each one representing the energy needed to do a task. You get up in the morning. That’s a spoon. You take a shower. That’s a spoon. You work, and play, and clean, and love, and hate, and that’s lots of damn spoons … but if you are young and healthy you still have spoons left over as you fall asleep and wait for the new supply of spoons to be delivered in the morning.

But if you are sick or in pain, your exhaustion changes you and the number of spoons you have. Autoimmune disease or chronic pain like I have with my arthritis cuts down on your spoons. Depression or anxiety takes away even more. Maybe you only have six spoons to use that day. Sometimes you have even fewer. And you look at the things you need to do and realize that you don’t have enough spoons to do them all. If you clean the house you won’t have any spoons left to exercise. You can visit a friend but you won’t have enough spoons to drive yourself back home. You can accomplish everything a normal person does for hours but then you hit a wall and fall into bed thinking, “I wish I could stop breathing for an hour because it’s exhausting, all this inhaling and exhaling.” And then your husband sees you lying on the bed and raises his eyebrow seductively and you say, “No. I can’t have sex with you today because there aren’t enough spoons,” and he looks at you strangely because that sounds kinky, and not in a good way. And you know you should explain the Spoon Theory so he won’t get mad but you don’t have the energy to explain properly because you used your last spoon of the morning picking up his dry cleaning so instead you just defensively yell: “I SPENT ALL MY SPOONS ON YOUR LAUNDRY,” and he says, “What the … You can’t pay for dry cleaning with spoons. What is wrong with you?”

Now you’re mad because this is his fault too but you’re too tired to fight out loud and so you have the argument in your mind, but it doesn’t go well because you’re too tired to defend yourself even in your head, and the critical internal voices take over and you’re too tired not to believe them. Then you get more depressed and the next day you wake up with even fewer spoons and so you try to make spoons out of caffeine and willpower but that never really works. The only thing that does work is realizing that your lack of spoons is not your fault, and to remind yourself of that fact over and over as you compare your fucked-up life to everyone else’s just-as-fucked-up-but-not-as-noticeably-to-outsiders lives.

Really, the only people you should be comparing yourself to would be people who make you feel better by comparison. For instance, people who are in comas, because those people have no spoons at all and you don’t see anyone judging them. Personally, I always compare myself to Galileo because everyone knows he’s fantastic, but he has no spoons at all because he’s dead. So technically I’m better than Galileo because all I’ve done is take a shower and already I’ve accomplished more than him today. If we were having a competition I’d have beaten him in daily accomplishments every damn day of my life. But I’m not gloating because Galileo can’t control his current spoon supply any more than I can, and if Galileo couldn’t figure out how to keep his dwindling spoon supply I think it’s pretty unfair of me to judge myself for mine.

I’ve learned to use my spoons wisely. To say no. To push myself, but not too hard. To try to enjoy the amazingness of life while teetering at the edge of terror and fatigue. (locs 3265-3294)

Honestly, if I were you, I would just head over to her site and drink it all in, and then buy her books and spend the weekend in bed feeling loved and known and crazy in the best possible way.


Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

This has been a big year for me exploring books that incorporate art. I’ve found so many that I loved, and this one, a gift from my sister-in-law at Christmas, has been on my “must read” list for a long time. I love Allie Brosh, I’ve followed her career for several years now, and I’m thrilled that her book was as delightful as I had imagined. Much like Fun House, Hyberbole and a Half is a drama dressed up in clown shoes and a squeaky nose. Although much of Brosh’s work makes me giggle uncontrollably, the real meat of it deals with her own struggles with depression and self-worth.

If my life were a movie, the turning point of my depression would have been inspirational and meaningful.  It would have involved wisdom-filled epiphanies about discovering my true self and I would conquer my demons and go on to live the rest of my life in happiness.

Instead, my turning point mostly hinged on the fact that I had rented some movies and then I didn’t return them for too long.

The late fees had reached the point where the injustice of paying any more than I already owed outweighed my apathy. I considered just keeping the movies and never going to the video store again, but then I remembered that I still wanted to re-watch Jumanji.

I put on some clothes, put the movies in my backpack, and biked to the video store. It was the slowest, most resentful bike ride ever.

And when I arrived, I found out they didn’t even have Jumanji in.

Just as I was debating whether I should settle on a movie that wasn’t Jumanji or go home and stare in abject silence, I noticed a woman looking at me weirdly from a couple rows over.

She was probably looking at me that way because I looked really, really depressed and I was dressed like an Eskimo vagrant.

Normally, I would have felt an instant, crushing sense of self-consciousness, but instead, I felt nothing.

I’ve always wanted not to give a fuck. While crying helplessly into my pillow for no good reason, I would often fantasize that maybe someday I could be one of those stoic badasses whose emotions are mostly comprised of rock music and not being afraid of things. And finally – finally – after a lifetime of feelings and anxiety  and more feelings, I didn’t have any feelings left. I had spent my last feeling being disappointed that I couldn’t rent Jumanji

I felt invincible.

And thus began a tiny rebellion.

I swooped out of there like the Batman and biked home in a blaze of defiant glory.

And that’s how my depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton. (p 113)

So ends Part One of the two part story about her worst eighteen months of depression. In the second section, she talks about how the feeling of invincibility faded to become a combination of boredom and a sort of horror that she would never experience feelings again. She doesn’t spare any of the journey – the loving but useless help from friends, the struggle with suicidal thoughts, the slow road back from depression to a more balanced mental health – it’s all there. Furthermore, the end is not a rainbow of recovery so much as it is a ray of hope.

A huge part of what makes her story so authentic and appealing is that she’s not fixated on the neat conclusion, but on the space in between the starting line and the finish. Her approach is light but frank and could as easily be a jumping off point for discussing these issues in a classroom or at home as it is an enjoyable coffee table read.Humor has long been used as a technique to de-stigmatize certain behaviors society has deemed off-limits for discussion, and I, for one, am completely in support of this approach. Brosh’s sense of the absurd coupled with her piercing self-examination is unsettling, but also strangely inviting. She’s the guest you invite over who has no filter, the one who manages to be awkward and scrambling and lovable at the same time.


To see more of Allie Brosh’s brilliant work, head over here.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

Way back when I started this blog, I wrote a review about the second book in Grossman’s Magician trilogy. It was one of those stories that ripped out my heart, mutilated it, then tried to shove it back into my chest in only a rough approximation of where it had originally been. It was that good (or bad, depending on how you want to look at it). Either way, it was one of those books I can’t bring myself to reread because it was too painful the first time, even though I often find myself thinking about it and recalling specific lines with a sort of perverse heartbreaking pleasure.

I was fortunate enough to discover the first two books in the trilogy through John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” and of course read them back to back. I was surprised to find that the second was my favorite, since in general I find the middle book of a trilogy to be, at best, a placeholder, and at worst, a dull repetition of the first book.

I had two years to dwell on that second volume though, since Grossman didn’t publish his conclusion, The Magician’s Land, until early fall of this year. I thought I would tear right into my pre-ordered copy when it arrived in September, but I found myself putting it off again and again, strangely hesitant to reenter the world he had so lovingly created. I don’t know why I hesitated, but some part of me wasn’t ready. The end of the second book was just…well, I can’t quite explain it, but it stuck with me so deeply that it was nearly impossible to move into the end of the story. Let’s just say that I still get choked up when I think about that book, and reading the third one almost felt like a betrayal of what had come before.

I finally did it though. Christmas break turned out to be a good opportunity, especially given that the third book turned out to be a lot less devastating than the first two (not exactly holiday heart-warmers, I promise you that). I ended up reading it during breaks from family time and in the various airports we had to travel through, and I wonder if that stuttered timeline influenced my perception of the book. Grossman still writes a hell of a compelling story, it didn’t win me over nearly the way the first two did.

The biggest challenge seemed to be that the author himself was having a hard time saying goodbye to his world. It’s something I completely understand, and it actually makes me like Grossman even more than I did before, but it didn’t all come together for quite as powerful a conclusion as aI was expecting. Things were a little too easy for characters he had made suffer in the other books, and while I’m all for them catching a few breaks after everything they’d experienced, I wanted a little more of that pain he writes so beautifully.

I wonder what the experience would have been like if I’d been able to read all three of these volumes back to back. Hopefully, some of you will do it and let me know if I’m completely off-base with my interpretation of the final installment. Grossman is certainly a major talent, and his books are well-worth the emotional investment. Part of my problem is that I can’t tell if I set myself up with unrealistic expectations, or if he really did go a little too easy on his “children” this time around. The plot certainly filled in a lot of fascinating holes left in the first two books, and I enjoyed the story very much – I just did’t have that shot to to the heart reaction I was hoping for.

*As a side note, I do want to mention that these books contain material that may not be suitable for everyone. The second book, in particular, has a triggering scene so violent I still find it disturbing years later. The series is not, in general, overly violent or sexual in nature but I wouldn’t want to recommend these across the board without issuing this as a consideration.


For more about Lev Grossman, head over here.

The Way of the Happy Woman: Living the Best Year of Your Life, Sara Avant Stover

There are some books I read that I feel an immediate affinity for. I have to admit, this wasn’t one of them. It’s the second of the books my sister-in-law gifted me in January (Homebody Yoga being the first), and I’d put in on the shelf and forgotten about it until last week. I was looking for my Moosewood cookbook, and since I have limited storage space, I keep cookbooks next to the unread pile; as I was squatting there trying to ignore how incredibly dirty the rug had gotten, I had time to scan through quite a few titles when I came across this one.

I didn’t remember immediately where it had come from, but it seemed fortuitous. I’m halfway through a couple of novels but have been too busy to sink fully into their stories, and I wanted to take a break and try to regroup. Also, truth be told, 2014 has been a rough year (especially after ’13, which proved to be very lucky indeed) and it seemed important to pick up a book that might  help to realign my priorities. 

That being said, this is the kind of book that reminds me of people who love to hug. I have many dear friends who are huggers, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say I can count on one hand the people I like to hug, and on another, the people I’m willing to hug but would prefer to nod at politely from a distance to express my love. For the record, that hypothetical second-hand includes my very best friends in the world and most of my relatives; hugging, for me, in no way correlates to how much I care for a person, but I think it does say something about who I am as a person. And as a person, I don’t really like touching. Or touchy feely moments. Or books that encourage me to explore my feelings, even if they do so in a well-educated, thorough, and academically interesting way. Which this book does.

Stover is a fantastic writer, and she apparently also leads wonderful workshops based on the ideas she presents in The Way of the Happy Woman. I enjoyed the book and spent most of the time reading it in a meditative posture (as opposed to slung across the couch), which is a win in itself. I even found myself taking notes as I read, and when I looked back at them, I was amazed by how much I absorbed even though her style wasn’t quite a hit for me. To me, that’s a testament to how well-considered this material is and how relevant it is to my life. Even though I couldn’t help but giggle when she talked about the connection between menstrual cycles and the moon (yes, when I hear the word “menses,” I mutate into a twelve-year-old boy), I was able to get past the elements that didn’t work for me and be reminded of how important it is to disconnect from outside expectations in order to reconnect with myself on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by choosing to go for a run every day of Lent. Over the last few months, my body has felt more and more out of whack, and nothing I did seemed to bring it back in line. I was having trouble sleeping, eating well, and my exercise routines – usually a source of deep comfort – felt stymied. I needed a change, and although I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my normal workouts completely, I decided to add a minimum of ten minutes of running a day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but just knowing that I have to get changed and go out for a quick jog has reignited a sense of joy in the activity and motivated me to push harder and go further almost every time. I’ve come back faster than I’ve ever been before and more appreciative of the meditative time compressed into a short, intense workout.

After I finished the book, I decided to take up another daily practice. It seemed like I’d been making excuses about my brain feeling fried more recently, and while I’ve been doing a lot of writing I’m happy with, I can’t completely ignore an edge of creative burnout. I needed to try something new, if only so I could come back to writing with a fuller appreciation, so I went out and bought a new sketch pad, a pencil, and a set of cheap charcoals. I decided that everyday, I would reread one of my favorite poems and spend at least twenty minutes thinking about it and drawing something in relation to the piece.

I didn’t decide on this because I’m secretly a brilliant illustrator. I have very little experience in this area, truth be told, but in college, I took an art class that changed my perspective on the subject completely. For the first few weeks of class, I really struggled. The room was full of amazing artists, and all I could try to do was imitate, poorly, the work I saw happening around me. The only happiness I found was in our take-home assignments, which we did with charcoal in used books. I carried that dirty hardcover with me everywhere, and for the first time, I felt like there might be a spark of the artist in me. I give enormous credit to my professor because after she noticed this, she sat down and engaged me in a conversation about the problems I was having. I was embarrassed to admit what an amateur I was, but I knew it must be obvious from the work I produced. She didn’t care about that at all; instead, she asked me what I loved most. “Words,” I said. “Then that is where you art begins,” she told me.

I have never forgotten that moment, the freedom she granted me with that conversation, and in Stover’s book, it was that theme I came back to again and again. Her philosophy isn’t about perfection, or filling every day with lists of things to create superficial success; it was about reclaiming the parts of ourselves that bring us joy and a sense of peace. For me, all it took was deleting Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and suddenly, I had plenty of time to both run and draw. I stopped checking my email right after waking up and found out I had nearly thirty minutes every day to stretch while my husband got ready for work. I even forced myself to give up making calls for a week, and I realized that the long conversations I have on the phone are actually enriching my life, not detracting from it. I don’t know if these small adjustments will be enough to turn around what I don’t have control over this year, but they’re a place to start.

For more about Sara Avant Stover, go here.

Young Widower: A Memoir, John W Evans

I first heard about Katie Evans’ death in a nail salon. It was a Wednesday morning in November. I know this because my friend’s children are both at preschool on Wednesdays, and every few months, we  treat ourselves to the early bird special at Capri Spa. We’d been talking about Halloween, and about how last year her sons, who I have known since birth, knocked so timidly on the door. On a normal day, they would have bounded into our house and immediately climbed the stairs to compare how similar, and different, our mirror-image homes were.

On Halloween though, they hid behind their mother, and their father took pictures of them shyly accepting the gluten-free candy I had specifically picked to meet their family’s needs. This year though, they brought friends. They knocked loudly, and before I’d even reached the door, they were already shouting their trick-or-treats. They were firemen, bold and laughing and hungry. The boys’ grandparents stood by, and the father of their friends helped his youngest tuck a Fun size bag of M&Ms into a plastic jack-o-lantern.

I’d never met their little friends before, not officially. During the summer, I’d talked to the four of them while standing on a bench looking over the fence into their yard. I would keep an eye on the grill while they held up boats and trucks, and tried to make their splashes in the water table reach me.  Halloween was the first time I’d actually met John Evans though, and in the rush of holiday excitement, it was a passing hello. I had the impression later that he was tall, and that his kids were cute, and knew that he and his wife lived only a few blocks away. My friend confirmed all this, and we laughed about how this year, I’d forgotten to buy any Halloween candy at all, so she’d snuck some to me while the boys were distracted.

Then we went back to reading our magazines, and a few minutes passed before she mentioned that John was a writer, and that he had a book coming out in the winter. I suspect my response was non-committal.  People often talk to me about their writer friends. Some of them are published and some aren’t. Occasionally, I’ll read a friend’s, or a friend of a friend’s work; it depends on the book, the availability, my schedule. She mentioned that he was a poet, but that this new book was a memoir. “It’s about his wife,” she said, “and how she was killed by a bear in the Carpathian mountains.”

So there it was. Out in the open, this intimate detail about a man I only knew as “tall.” Fortunately, one of my friend’s great gifts is to project both sympathy and optimism in the same breath. There was nothing sordid or gossipy about her tone; his history was conveyed in a way I’ve come to think of as uniquely Utah. She was born and raised there, and although I’ve never been, I imagine it as a place where people wander around comfortably wearing their hearts on their sleeves, offering to all a blend of midwestern frankness and a more western laissez-faire attitude. Live and let live. I’m from New England though, and even after all these years on the left coast, I haven’t completely adjusted to such openness. I’m used to half-whispered conversations accompanied by guilt for letting slip anything tenuously labelled “private.”

Of course, this story isn’t private, in that he’s written a book detailing both the event itself and the first year of grief following it, but it felt that way, that first time I heard about it. The sun was shining, and we had coffee and issues of Real Simple and People on hand. The story felt somehow separate from the book, and when it came time to read it, my friend’s voice was often in the back of my mind. It was a comfort to have her there. This wasn’t just a stranger’s reflection about violent death and being widowed at thirty – that would be painful enough – no, this was a man I’d met, however briefly, who had witnessed and recovered (such that one can recover) from a terrible sadness. Whatever grief is his to carry, he has a family, and friends, and children whose names I’ve often heard mentioned with great affection.

When I opened the book for the first time, I wasn’t fully prepared for John’s eloquence or how the story would be magnified when related in his own words. I was with my husband in a doctor’s office. It was the day after my birthday, and he was waiting to have a sprained ankle looked at. We were very early for his appointment, because I have a hard time not being very early, and he loves me enough to go with it. Surrounded by strangers, I tried to cry discreetly. I tried to ignore the combination of raw, poetic story-telling, and my friend’s voice in my ear, Halloween, and my husband’s arm brushing mine. I didn’t want John’s story to seem at all familiar, because if it did, it would mean the anxieties that sometimes overwhelm me might not just be figments of an overactive imagination but potentialities.

In the weeks that followed, as I tried to absorb as best I could the grief and shame and regret and healing he had written about, I began to notice how many jokes people told about bears. Every off-handed comment had me on edge. Years removed from his initial grief, I found myself wondering if it had bothered him, if he’d found a way to accept such things the way I’ve seen survivors of fatal car crashes accept the sound of screeching tires. I found myself wanting to say something, to somehow put a stop to casual jests, but of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t, not without sounding like a lunatic.

Instead, I funneled all of my energy into the character I’ve been writing for Ten to One, a young widow whose closest friends have dangerous ties to Romania. What were the odds, I wondered, that things I’d barely considered before the past year – the death of a spouse, a country I’ve never visited – what was the likelihood they would appear here, in this book, written by a nice man from down the street? Maybe certain books cross our paths when we need them, or maybe it’s a coincidence. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that as I struggled to write fictitious death and survival so far removed from the reality of such circumstances, I read this one sentence over and over again:

In order to participate in the world, it must be tamed and made reasonable, and when it is not tame and reasonable, the world still requires participation. (p 77)

I copied that sentence at the top of every page so that as I was writing, and stripping things away, and trying to convince a paper girl to not just live in the face of death, but to re-engage with the world around her, I would remember that such a thing was not just possible but paramount. That the weeping and gnashing of teeth and pretending to be fine, the nostalgia and forgetting, the sleeping too much or not enough, with friends or alone – it was all at least partially true. Having a life after terrible loss was possible – as possible as disappearing under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or retreating from it all. The world still requires participation though, even when it cannot be tamed, and yet for those times when life is bitter and unreasonable, there are stories like John’s – books that accept the ugliness of both death and survival and remind us to be grateful and angry and preciously alive.

For more about John Evans, go here.

Homebody Yoga, Jay Fields

During the two weeks of January that weren’t a polar apocalypse, I was on the east coast visiting some friends and family. (It turns out I really don’t miss winter, although the one snow day I got was nice.) While I was with my brother and sister-in-law, they (but mostly she) gave me a slim volume called Homebody Yoga: 28 Days to Bring You Home to Your Body & To a Life Led with Purpose for my birthday. It was the only book I got while I was there (I may have purchased five novels at the great secondhand bookshop that’s also a wine bar) that I didn’t have my parents ship back to me. Instead, I tucked it in my carry-on and read it on and off for the rest of the trip.

Now, Julia is the person, years ago now, who first introduced me to yoga. She badgered me to try it enough times that I actually learned to love it (oh, how I loathed it at the start!). She’s been a constant source of knowledge and encouragement to me and has managed to spread her love of yoga to my whole family.

If you had told me a decade ago that such a thing could happen, I wouldn’t have believed you, but sure enough, yoga has inextricably become a part of our lives. I think my favorite class was the one where my parents, my brother’s in-laws, and my sixth grade teacher were all practicing under Julia’s patient tutelage. It was surreal and excellent at the same time.

At any rate, when she recommends a book to me, I trust her. She understands what I’m looking for uncannily well; she has never once recommended one (on yoga or any other subject) that I haven’t loved. Homebody Yoga was no exception. This book, which essentially began with a reference to the poem by Derek Walcott below, was an absolute perfect find for my birthday month.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

During February, I like to spend time reflecting on my year and considering what I can do over the next eleven months to improve my life from the inside out. I enjoy unlocking little pieces of myself that have been undernourished or ignored, and this book offered the perfect opportunity for a month of reflection.

Fields’ book is so much more than a “how-to” for home practice though. As a writer, she’s insightful (without being smarmy), as well as warm and funny and thought-provoking. Her guidance is intuitive for both the novice and the expert, and every page had me ready to jump up and get on my mat.

Part of me wanted to wait until February 1st to crack the cover, but ultimately, I couldn’t wait. I had to do a full read-through before I officially “started” my twenty-eight days. I’m glad I did. This is a book that bears rereading. Like a good poem (or yoga pose), her advice resonates a little differently with me each day. The time I’m spending with this book and my mat has become a refuge, and Fields, my companion on a very strange, and necessary, journey.


For more about Jay Fields, head here.

Sanctum (Guards of the Shadowlands, Book One), Sarah Fine

Mercy is not a right. Mercy is a gift from one to another. It can’t be earned. (p 368).

Sometimes, a book is just perfect. I don’t mean in the “it’s a classic for the ages and every generation should read and analyze it,” but in the “this speaks to my soul” sort of way. Sanctum is one of those books. I came across the first chapter by chance on Amazon and decided to get it since it was on sale, and then the rest of the novel ended up being off-the-rails awesome.

Fine wove her story around redemption and friendship, depression, suicide, hell, history – all without losing her sense of humor (not an easy task considering some of the subject matter she took on). The book broke my heart a couple of times too, and when I was done with it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know who struggle with debilitating mental health issues. Novels that tackle the idea of teen suicide with such frank honesty gut me, and this one, despite being a fantasy novel instead of straight fiction, was right on point.

It was a book about healing, about using newfound strength to protect and to offer mercy, and about what it looks like not to be able to find that strength. No judgement there either, but rather an acceptance that healing is complicated, and messy, and sometimes incomplete. It’s a painful and  difficult idea for us to accept, and it’s rare for an author to capture the experience of living through it – from both the perspective of the person who feels hopeless and of the one who feels helpless – so well.

Fine also created a fantastical world that was horrifying while containing a kernel of truth that was inescapable. Her underworld felt like such a true place – a horrible, soul-sucking, and brilliant setting for this novel – that I’m almost disappointed that we might not get to see as much of it in the next book. That being said, she nailed the pacing and wrap-up of this first book in her series, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

For more about Sarah Fine, go here.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

There was something fitting about picking up this book over Father’s Day weekend. I first fell in love with it when it appeared on a syllabus for one of my classes in Early Education at UCLA, and, in fact it is, along with its “cousin,” Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, my go-to book for family dynamic issues. It’s been years now since I’ve read it, and I had forgotten just how much of my teaching philosophy stems from this book, but after spending the evening babysitting my neighbor’s children, I decided a refresher course was in order. (That came out wrong. The boys are delightful and I adore them, but right around the time I was commando-crawling out of their room hoping they wouldn’t wake up as I slid over the creaky floorboards, it occurred to me that it never hurts to take a second look at a great resource.)

Both Siblings and How to Talk are quick reads – perfect for the hectic parental lifestyle – and they include hilariously old-school cartoons, stories from parents, and Quick Reminder pages to distill information for the most harried readers. My copy is also filled with highlighted paragraphs and scribbled notes in the margin; the fact that I never mark up my books leads me to believe that upon first reading, I was absolutely terrified this information wouldn’t sink in.

My teaching career at that point was mainly hinging on a naturally empathetic nature and a high threshold for stickiness and screaming. I didn’t have many tools at my disposal, and I was panicked that I had already been hired by a lovely school desperately in need of teacher’s aides. Even though I wouldn’t be taking point in the classroom my first year, I still felt wildly unprepared (a feeling I suspect many parents share). As an educator and a student, however, I was fortunate enough to have more than my fair share of amazing professors who recommended resources like this one and were paid to spend time discussing the finer details. I learned so much from them, and as I took this information in, I was able to turn my time in the classroom into a wonderful experience.

Not everyone has that opportunity, of course. Even though this book was written in 1980, I’ve met very few parents who have read it, although I know plenty who are bombarded by complete crap on the internet on an hourly basis. I’ve spent a lot of time in the parenting sections of bookstores and  websites reading about claims to fix everything from colic to biting to tardiness, and it seems to me that most of the material is designed to make parents less secure (and therefore more likely to buy buy buy a solution).

Faber and Mazlish have a more holistic approach. Everything they discuss comes from a combination of personal experience and study with the esteemed child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott . Not only have they used these methods with their own children, but they’ve also led workshops on this subject all over the country for many years. They’ve tested what they teach, and they have encouraged their audience to experiment, question, and explore these resources with a critical eye. Through all of this, they are optimistic about the possibility of building healthy, respectful relationships within the family and classroom, and the techniques they present are simple and straightforward.

As I was pouring over the material on Sunday, I couldn’t help but compare these ideas with my own upbringing. At first, I found myself being extremely critical – I could only see the things I would have done differently. After more consideration though, I realized that my parents had used quite a few of these suggestions when raising us. I don’t know if they were motivated by something they read or if it simply came from a natural instinct to be trusting and compassionate, but the foundation was definitely there. I realized that between them and the parents of my closest friends, the combined parenting styles stretched over just about all of the material covered in the book.

Wouldn’t it be great it have all that patience and skill in one family? Of course, but I’m ninety-seven percent sure it’s impossible, and in the end, I don’t think it mattered. Spending time with those families gave us exposure to a wider variety of ideas about limits, discipline, and family roles and helped to shape us into the people we are today. And remarkably, we’re all still friends, most likely because, despite our flaws and differences, we share the same values of love, forgiveness, and perseverance instilled at a young age.

That being said, I wish parents would read books like this because families deserve to live better. Parents, children, siblings – and to be honest, anyone who has to interact with other people  – should take time to learn how to communicate more effectively, and Mazlish and Faber make it easy. Cooperation shouldn’t be a desperate and unachievable goal. Shared responsibility shouldn’t be impossible. Respect should definitely not be a one way street. Regardless of age, we all want to be treated well, to have our ideas heard, and to feel like valued and contributing members of our communities. I’ve seen these ideas at work, and the results are well worth the time it takes to read the book.


For more about Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (including details about organizing workshops), head over here.

Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

Last night, I was lying in bed trying to sleep – it has been very difficult since Friday – I realized that this post, a post I wrote last Thursday night, might be upsetting to some readers this morning. When I picked this book, and when I wrote what I did, mental health was not a hot topic of debate. It was not tied to a very recent tragedy, a tragedy that I know many of us grieve intensely for, even without knowing a single person from Newtown. 

I tossed and turned for a long time wondering if I should pull the post and save it for the new year. I thought about all the things I’ve been worrying about since Friday morning, and I considered whether I should say any of them here. In the end, I’ve decided to go forward with the review since it still reflects accurately my feelings about the book, and I’ve also decided not to say most of what I’ve been thinking about what happened. 

If I changed this post in response to what happened, to the (perhaps unnatural) level of stress I’m feeling in the aftermath, I would be lying to you. Because even after all of this – even after everything I have written to my friends and family in the last 48 hours (and there has been a lot), I do still believe in radical empathy. I believe we need it now, more than ever. 

That being said, today I will issue a TRIGGER WARNING for the post below. Any person has the right to be angry, sad, frustrated – even disbelieving – about the role mental illness plays in our lives, and I want it to be your choice to read my perspective about it.

My prayers are with all those affected by Friday’s terrible events, as well as with those who, like me, are filled with a desire to overcome these hopeless, fragile feelings with compassion and positive action. 


I rarely do this, but I have to admit that I saw the movie before I read this book. To be fair, when my friend suggested going to see “Silver Linings Playbook” on the weekend after Thanksgiving, I didn’t even know it was based on a book. I mostly agreed to it because I love Jennifer Lawrence, and I was willing to risk watching a movie with the potential for an unhappy ending in order to see her during the indeterminable wait until the next Hunger Games movie.

The_Silver_Linings_Playbook_CoverI’ll refrain from telling you whether or not the film and book have an unhappy ending, and I’ll even keep my mouth shut for now on the topic of my personal feelings about unhappy endings in entertainment because I want you to be able to enjoy the book, film or both, if you so desire. I obviously enjoyed the movie enough that when my friend told me about the book, I immediately bought a copy and even got around to reading it a lot sooner than I expected to.

I have the “due date is upon me manuscript insomnia” to thank for that, actually. I was laying awake last week – my brain in overdrive and my anxiety-induced heartburn stubbornly refusing to respond to antacids – when I decided to grab my kindle and read for a while. I was in the middle of two exciting urban fantasies novels, but I didn’t want to get sucked in and end up reading until dawn (not a good choice for exceptionally busy weeks), so I started “Silver Linings” instead. I already knew (roughly) what happened, so I figured I was safe on that front. Turns out, Quick is no slouch at creating an engaging, fast-paced novel that I kept coming back to long after I should have turned out the light.

What I really loved about both the movie and the book (and they’re certainly different, although not obnoxiously so) is how the issues of mental illness are dealt with. The number of people who struggle with some type of mental illness (and this may encompass any number of diagnoses, in terms of both severity and how deeply it affects day-to-day living) – well, let’s just say that if you know five people, chances are, at least one of them has or is dealing with mental illness in some dimension. I won’t belabor this point because I believe most people know and accept that this is true, but it’s a matter of real importance to me, and seeing it represented well, and compassionately, is a gift.

Cliff says Sylvia Plath’s work is very depressing to read, and that his own daughter had recently suffered through The Bell Jar because she is taking an American literature course at Eastern High School.

“And you didn’t complain to administration?” I asked.

“About what?”

“About your daughter being forced to read such depressing stories.”

“No. Of course not. Why would I?”

“Because the novel teaches kids to be pessimistic. No hope at the end, no silver lining. Teenagers should be taught that—”

“Life is hard, Pat, and children have to be told how hard life can be.”


“So they will be sympathetic to others. So they will understand that some people have it harder than they do and that a trip through this world can be a wildly different experience, depending on what chemicals are raging through one’s mind.” (p 128)

When I read “Dear Sugar” last week, the phrase the captured me in the introduction was “radical empathy.” I didn’t intentionally pick this book next because it followed the same theme, but in fact it does. And it’s Christmastime, and I want more radical empathy in my life – not just for me, but by me.

For the last year, I’ve been trying to live by the line, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” but it’s tough. I’m a judgmental person. I like sarcasm. Making fun of things is funny. Right? Right! Well, sort of. But making fun of things that other people have worked hard on, or making fun of things that mean more to others than they do to me, or making fun of things when someone might just be having a bad day or year or decade? Not so funny.

When I was teaching preschool, I found myself drawn to children with developmental delays that prevented them from understanding certain kinds of jokes, or, for lack of a better word, sneakiness. These children struggled so hard with typical daily interactions that there was no room in their brains to develop the intentional deceptiveness that most of us have perfected by about seven years old. These kids were truthful to the point of painful awkwardness on at least a weekly basis, but I grew to love it. That raw honestly never came out of a place of cruelty, but out of a desire to make the world more clear, more manageable – less cruel, in fact.

This is the world that Pat Peoples lives in. This is the world his parents and brother and friends have to accept in order to understand him and love him the way he deserves. It’s not easy. Anyone who has been in a similar situation will tell you – it is not easy. But if you need a book that really lays it all out for you in the title, might I suggest “Silver Linings Playbook” this holiday season?

Find out more about Matthew Quick here.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed

When I was trying to describe this book to my husband last week, I was sort of at a loss. He heard the word advice, and immediately thought of Dear Abby or Guideposts magazine. When I told my best friend about it, about how it was the book she had to read in these last two weeks before she turns thirty, she nodded in that way a person can over text message from 200o miles away, and said, “I’ve read the column before. I’ll keep it in mind.” When I took a break from the book, and weeping, went outside to stand in the rain, one of the neighborhood cats came by for a little skittish love, and even though I’m barely a car person at all, I knelt down and pet her and told her about how beautiful this damn book was, and how it kept breaking and healing my heart over and over and over again. Then I went to the bookstore and tried to decide how many copies of it I could afford to buy as Christmas gifts.

Tiny_Beautiful-330You see, there had been a the moment in the book’s introduction (which I was reading for free at Amazon) when I decided I could not wait for Christmas myself, that I would instead immediately purchase this collection of advice columns from Sugar at The Rumpus:

Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters— every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’d absorbed before she was old enough even to understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded, with great gentleness. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

Like a lot of folks, I read the piece with tears in my eyes— which is how one reads Sugar. This wasn’t some pro forma kibitzer, sifting through a stack of modern anxieties. She was a real human being laying herself bare, fearlessly, that we might come to understand the nature of our own predicaments. (p 5)

I had never heard of The Rumpus or of the Dear Sugar column when I found this book. I don’t know what prompted me to go from seeing the book mentioned on Twitter to finding and devouring it – to having it devour me – when I have never liked advice columns before. I am a bossy little sister. I’m a stage manager. I’m a control freak with a color-coded closet and a thousand spreadsheets to my name. I am that woman who doesn’t know how great the advice she got was until five years and endless proof in its favor later.

I don’t know how to take advice. I’m too sensitive, too narcissistic. It seems, sometimes, that I would rather take all the wrong roads (with enthusiasm!) just to allow experience to teach me what I need to know rather than to listen to somebody who knows better than I do. I know I’m not alone in this. We are a large tribe, we over-confident, ego-driven maniacs. To take advice, it feels, is to relinquish some of this power that we have worked so hard to accumulate, and if we lose the power, then surely the next step is to lose our tenuous grip on life we have decided we wanted or maybe gotten or possibly just dream of. To take advice means we must take risks and work harder – it means admitting that what we have or what we do is not exactly what we want.

The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing. Perhaps not forgiving yourself is the flip side of your steal-this-now cycle. Would you be a better or worse person if you forgave yourself for the bad things you did? If you perpetually condemn yourself for being a liar and thief, does that make you good? (p 272)

I read many of the letters and responses with a sense of deep familiarity. I didn’t realize how many people had dark stories inside them that were so similar to the dark stories inside me. I read others with the excruciating realization that I was a crying because Sugar was saying what I wanted to say to people I love…but I couldn’t say those things unless the person asked to hear them because if I did, it would probably come off as cruel or selfish or tactless. A few of the stories, I couldn’t relate to on a personal level at all, and yet the raw human experience of sharing the pain of someone else’s truth still moved me to the point that I had to stand up and walk away. I had to pray for those faceless people because if I didn’t, the injustice and suffering they had to endure would have swept me away.

Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. (p 29)

What pushed me to run to the bookstore and buy every copy of this book off the shelf was not the advice though. Many of us have people in our lives – friends or family members or helpful strangers – who could listen to what we have to say and break things down for us. They could strip the truth right out of us, and in my experience, even the best intentioned (myself included at the very top of this list) do so with a calculating intensity that leaves us shaken, fragile and more often than not humiliated by our weakness. Chances are, if we’re willing and able to let a person do that, we both trust them to have conversations together later that build us back up, and somewhat vindictively, we also know that their turn will come. (This is awful, maybe, but true.) We can get advice practically anywhere, and in this day and age, from almost anyone. The difference between Sugar and myself+almost everyone I have ever met is that she splits the matter wide open, lays bare the intimate and hurting soul of the advice-seeker, and all the while, as a reader – as a seeker, myself – I never doubt her unconditional love of the person to whom she is speaking.

Unconditional love is not common-place. It is not easy. I am the daughter of a minister, and I have known many teachers from many faiths, and although they are generally kind, thoughtful, compassionate people, never have they been able to teach me, really, what unconditional love looks like. I grew up in a faith that expounded on the idea of both God and Jesus as givers of that unconditional love, and even though I have actually felt that kind of undeserved and accepting love before, I struggle to understand what it means. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find it in this book, but it appeared anyway.

Cheryl Strayed (aka Sugar) is not a religious woman. She doesn’t preach or give sappy, sticky-sweet advice. She has had a hard life and her experiences root her writing. If I had read just one column, I might not be so moved. I don’t know – I didn’t read one column – I read the whole book, and it left me motivated and sad and feeling like I’m worth something. I was empowered, but also intimidated by her reminders of how much work a joyful, healthy life can be. I felt, too, small that I don’t always give advice to the people I care about with the same generous love that she manages to give to complete strangers. The reason I want to give this book to everyone I know is because we all have secret (and not so secret) hurting places that require more than advice – they beg for unconditional love that doesn’t let us off the hook, but rejoices every single time we try to do, and be, better.

Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill. You have to say I am forgiven again and again until it becomes the story you believe about yourself. (p 273)


If you are anything like me, you are anxious to head over here, to preview some of Sugar’s advice or here to find about Cheryl Strayed’s other books (which I will definitely be reading).

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

I have had this book on my “to-read” shelf since the summer. I know this because I bought it one night during one of those stroll around the city since it’s still light at 10pm kind of dates (and can I just say, thank goodness it’s almost March, which means the one good thing Bush Jr did in eight years  – adding four weeks to DST – is about to be upon us again).

I’m pretty sure the cover of this book sold it to me (look at the piece of cake and tell me you don’t want to throw down your resolve and grab a fork). The way I buy books when I’m in a physical bookstore (not at all online, oddly enough), is that I browse around, and when a cover catches my eye, I read the first few pages or even the whole first chapter, depending on how intrigued I am; I decide from those two factors whether there is any chance I’ll ever want to read the book in full, then buy it or return it to the shelf accordingly.It’s not a scientific system, and it has its flaws (mainly, that I buy a bunch of books that seem promising but then mock me from the bookshelf for months or even years afterward), but I keep doing it.

And sometimes it pays off. In the case of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, it paid off in spades. It’s fiction. That also has a…I don’t supernatural? Science fiction? Hyper-vivid imagination? element to it that took me completely by surprise. It’s one of those books that I really don’t want to go into much detail about because one of the things I enjoyed most was how deftly Bender takes her concept and continuously massages new facets out of it for 300 pages.

I thought I knew exactly what to expect – the back cover shares the premise of the book after all – that a nine-year old girl develops the ability to taste the emotion cooked into food – but the story balloons into so much more while remaining intimate, painful, and even a smidge redemptive.

Maybe it’s the fact that I spent twenty or so years of my life with undiagnosed lactose intolerance that I found this book so easy to sink into. This is a dance between girl and food and things incomprehensible, and there is no escape because everyone has to eat. For some people, food is a constant pleasure, an easy, understandable three meals a day; for others, it’s a base necessity lacking mystery beyond existing or not; but for some of us unfortunate folk, it is work, constant work for the body and the mind to come to an agreement about nourishing the physical existence and the soul.

My own stomach refuses to digest so many things that I’ve had to work hard to love food, and I’ve often resented the people who get along with it so easily. The pleasure for me is in discovering a book where the protagonist struggles in her own unique relationship with food, one that is complex, and tinged with her desire to be easy-going and “normal.”

You can find out more about Aimee Bender at her beautiful site

Veronika Decides to Die, Paulo Coehlo

I have long had a love affair with Paulo Coehlo’s writing. This very book, in fact, was first recommended to me years ago when I was in college by a high school friend who was living with me in Boston. Both of us were trying to navigate some emotionally charged situations at the time, and this story, based in part on Coehlo’s own experiences in a mental hospital as a young man, was a much-needed ray of sun in our otherwise stormy worlds.

I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you that this book is the story of a young woman in Slovenia who intentionally overdoses on sleeping pills and wakes up weeks later in a private mental hospital called Villete. The meat of the story comes after her attempted suicide, rather than in the time leading up to it.

Outside the barred window, the sky was thick with stars, and the moon, in its first quarter, was rising behind the mountains. Poets loved the full moon; they wrote thousands of poems about it, but it was the new moon that Veronika loved best because there was still room for it to grow, to expand, to fill the whole of its surface with light before its inevitable decline. (Kindle Loc 767)

Veronika is an ordinary, and in fact, extremely fortunate, twenty-four year old woman in most every respect. She has loving parents, a place to live, a job as a librarian; she herself admits that she is lovely enough that she could have almost any man she chose if she wanted to. Her life is stable, if dull. While she lays waiting for the sleeping pills to take effect, she muses on the fact that it’s best to end her life now, when she is still strong enough to do it. If she didn’t, she would just continue to stumble through life without feeling much of anything.

I think the reason that this book resonates with me as much now as it did a decade ago is that I have made a great study into the unnatural expectations we have for life. I have read about how the most unhappy people are often the most fortunate – those who have time to dwell on the fact that their lives are not what they hoped are the ones most likely to give up when the going gets tough. There is real suffering and need in the world, real disease – both physical and mental, real financial ruin, real fear…but Veronika suffers from none of that. She has not been abused, or suffered some great tragedy; she isn’t diagnosed with a mental illness or chemical imbalance. She’s just bored.

When I read this book at twenty-two, and again at twenty-five, I felt so close to Veronika. Her experiences, her romantic expectations about life were something I too had lived with. I was also just as anxious to play exactly the part assigned to me, and if I deviated from it, or drew attention to myself, I felt like I had failed.

Mari remembered what she had read in the young girl’s eyes the moment she had come into the refectory: fear. Fear. Veronika might feel insecurity, shyness, shame, constraint, but why fear? That was only justifiable when confronted by a real threat: ferocious animals, armed attackers, earthquakes, but not a group of people gathered in a refectory. But human beings are like that, she thought. We’ve replaced nearly all our emotions with fear. (Kindle loc 1333)

This third reading, though, right from the beginning, I couldn’t help but want to gently poke fun at this girl – so certain of herself, and yet so insecure. She reminded me of one of my five-year old students who told me on the first day of school, “You can’t teach me anything. I already know it all.” I think, very unprofessionally, I laughed in his face.

Because the thing about growing up, I’ve discovered, is that I know fewer and fewer answers every year that goes by, but rather than feel frightened by that, I’m happy to know I still have room to grow. I love life that much more ferociously, even on days when I’m so bored it scares me, than I ever did before.

Look at me; I was beginning to enjoy the sun again, the mountains, even life’s problems, I was beginning to accept that the meaninglessness of life was no one’s fault but mine. I wanted to see the main square in Ljubljana again, to feel hatred and love, despair and tedium—all those simple, foolish things that make up everyday life, but that give pleasure to your existence. If one day I could get out of here, I would allow myself to be crazy. Everyone is indeed crazy, but the craziest are the ones who don’t know they’re crazy; they just keep repeating what others tell them to. (Kindle loc 1160)

I don’t know why we’ve evolved into people who expect that life should constantly bend to our whims, or thrill us, or give us great meaning when throughout human history, the greatest goal was always simply to survive. I’m not above this – in fact, like many people in Gen Y, I’ve spent my entire adult life being defined by these desires. It’s been an uphill battle to find myself outside the norm – those “It Gets Better” commercials make me tear up a little every time because although it does certainly get better, it also gets harder. I still worry that other people might think I’m crazy, just not as much as I once did. For many years now, this has been one of my favorite poems on the subject:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
-Jenny Joseph

What I love most about Coehlo though, is that he so cherishes the fragility of our flawed human nature that he makes the worst in us seem necessary to improvement. His most superficial, broken characters give me great hope, and that is something I will always choose to read.

More on Paulo Coehlo can be found at, including a blog and a link to his twitter and facebook feeds.