The One With the Circle of Compassion

Joy Southard is one of my favorite people on the planet. True, I haven’t met all of the people on the planet, but if even if I did, I assure you, Joy would still be at the top of the list. We met a few years ago when I interviewed her for an article I was writing about the program she runs in Texas called Healing Species, which teaches children empathy and compassion with the help of rescued dogs. Joy’s kind spirit just filled the room. Through her example, I uncovered one of the most valuable life lessons I would ever learn.

Beth Ann Chiles is like Joy in many ways: warm, generous, genuine. I always feel that if I showed up on Beth Ann’s doorstep, she’d invite me in for some tea in one of her adorable teapots, no questions asked. I felt honored when she asked me to write a guest post for her blog. I decided to get these two wonderful women together, even if it could only be virtually.

I invite you to head over to my post Beth Ann’s site and read about Joy’s important work. Don’t forget to leave a comment. Beth Ann participates in Comments for a Cause, donating $.50 for every blog comment to a charitable organization. This month she’s donating to Doctors Without Borders, an organization that sends doctors from around the world to places that need them most.

See you there!

The One with the Dress Code

I bought a bright blue jacket. It’s the color of a blue jay. This shouldn’t be big news, except that I live in New York City, where we have a dress code. That dress code consists of one color: black.

The jacket was available in several colors. Standard black, of course, red, the aforementioned blue, and sunshine yellow. Fueled by good cheer and a pumpkin spice latte, I decided to live on the edge and went with the blue. The sunshine yellow wasn’t even an option. I said “live on the edge,” not “jump off the cliff.”

On the subway ride home, I began feeling buyer’s remorse. Everyone over the age of five wore black coats, black hats, black gloves. Still, I liked the jacket and thought it was a good purchase. When I got home, I cut the tags right away. There. I’ll teach myself not to second guess. But myself had other ideas.

I avoided the jacket. Put it at the back of the closet. Wore my old ratty jacket, the one I was planning to donate to NY Cares Coat Drive. This was silly. I doubt anyone registers what I, a stranger, is wearing. And if they do, why would I care?

At the next opportunity, I donated the old ratty jacket as planned. There. I’ll teach myself not to worry about what other people think. But myself had other ideas.

For the next few days, I bundled up with thick sweaters and layers to avoid having to wear a jacket. Then the temperature dropped, and I couldn’t avoid it any longer. We had a date with destiny.

I tried it on for the first time since I’d bought it. Oh, was it too snug? I should have gotten a size larger. Maybe I should have opted for something a bit longer. Was it going to be warm enough? All of this was dancing around the main issue. The color. It’s just a jacket, I kept reminding myself. Part of the reason I’d chosen that color was to get out of my comfort zone, even in this nominal way. It’s good to push boundaries from time to time. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s important to give myself a chance.

fitting-in

I zipped up the jacket and grabbed my keys before I had another chance to talk myself out of it. I got to my office building without incident, but I felt self-conscious, like a fish trying to swim against the school. There is a paradox here. I both want to blend in and be recognized; belong and stand out. (Though as Brene Brown points out, fitting in is not the same as belonging.)

As I walked the long hallway to my office, a co-worker stopped me. Some of us have worked together so long we are pathetically tuned in to the slightest changes in appearance. “Hey, that’s a new jacket! Great color.” Really? I stood a bit straighter. I hung the jacket on the back of my door and thought maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.  Later, on leaving for the day, another colleague offered a similar compliment while a third peeked around a filing cabinet. “Yes, I was going to mention that earlier. I like your jacket.”

Suddenly this was the best purchase I’d ever made. I felt confident and savvy. I practically strutted onto the subway for the ride home.

Have your perceptions changed after getting approval (or disapproval) from someone?

Have a great weekend, everyone!  

 

 

Fifth Annual Great Books to Give…and Get

Books make great gifts. If you’ve got a long list of people to buy for this holiday season and no idea what to get them, here are a few suggestions. (BTW, I can’t believe this is the fifth installment!)

 

Signature of All ThingsFor those who want to sink their teeth into an epic: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. If you only know Elizabeth Gilbert from her runaway bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, then I think you’ll be delightfully surprised by this expansive, lush novel that covers most of the 19th century through the eyes of the Whittakers. First, we follow Henry Whittaker as he travels the world making a fortune in the quinine trade. He settles in Philadelphia, where his daughter Alma is his protege of sorts. She becomes one of the world’s leading experts in mosses. Alma is a scientist (before that was even a term) during a fundamental shift in ideas about science, religion, trade, and gender. An unforgettable story.

 

Eleanor & ParkFor those who want to remember what it’s like to be young and in love: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. Oh, did I enjoy this slender YA novel. On the surface, this seems to be a simple boy-meets-girl story, but often it’s the simplest stories that stay with us the longest. Eleanor and Park are social outcasts. They find comfort in each other, slowly developing a friendship and then a romance. The story alternates between the two, usually in small sections, covering most of their junior year of high school. I thought Rainbow Rowell’s writing style was honest without being sappy. And I especially loved the portrayal of the adults, particularly Eleanor’s and Park’s parents. Sometimes YA stories gloss over anyone above the age of 25 or treat them like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons. Not so in this story. And the ending? So well done!

 

Cutting TeethFor those who enjoyed The InterestingsCutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro. This is a sharp, witty look inside the lives of a group of thirty-something couples with kids. They’ve all gathered at a Long Island beach house one summer weekend. We bear witness to the complexities of their relationships as old frustrations, secrets, and insecurities bubble to the surface. The desire to juggle career, children, spouse, and family, combined with the pressure to compromise yet have-it-all creates a kind of reckoning for the characters. Completely relatable! Sometimes I laughed out loud, and sometimes I felt deep anguish for their misguided activities. Side note: I’m proud to say that Julia was one of my favorite writing instructors and workshop leaders.

 

My Salinger YearFor those who know someone just starting out (or starting again): My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff. What if you’d just ditched grad school to be a poet and your day-job was to answer fan mail on behalf of author J.D. Salinger? Maybe you’d feel like an impostor. Or maybe you’d think it was a cushy gig. Joanna Rakoff, working for the author’s agent, is pulled into this literary netherworld by some of the gut-wrenching, soul-bearing missives from fans. She can’t bring herself to reply with the form letter, so she starts answering for him. (This is the mid-`90s.) But this book isn’t just about Salinger. It’s about a young woman, fresh out of college, trying to make her way in the world and find her own voice.

 

 

Still Life with BreadcrumbsFor those who want a character they “get”: Still Life with Breadcrumbs, by Anna Quindlen. Before I picked up this novel, it had been years since I’d read a book by Anna Quindlen, and I was quickly reminded how much I enjoy her writing style. It’s her clean prose that focuses on just the right details that made me feel enveloped in Rebecca Winter’s world. Rebecca is a sixty-something photographer, who had achieved great success in her youth, now unable to make her mortgage payments. She once thought the phenomena would continue without end, but “the coin of notoriety pays with less and less interest as time goes by.” As she settles, uncomfortably at first, into her small rented cabin in upstate New York, she is sure this is all a means to an end. She opens herself up to new possibilities, without ulterior motives, and makes a case for the importance of taking control of one’s life. While the outcome might be a bit predictable, it left me feeling happy, and I loved that.

 

All the Light We Cannot SeeFor those who want to be swept away: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. I probably shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon until I actually finish this book (I’m near the end), but I can’t help myself. The story alternates between Marie-Laure, a blind girl who escaped to the coastal French town of Saint-Malo during the 1940 invasion of Paris, and Werner, an German-born orphan saved from a life in the mines because of his knack for building and repairing radio receivers. As the situation becomes more dire for each of them, Werner tells himself, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” Don’t be put off by the length of the book; the chapters are very short, some only two pages (which could make this a poor audio book or e-book candidate). I hope you love it as much as I do.

 

Mary SutterFor those who like a character who defies the odds: My Name Is Mary Sutter, by Robin Oliviera. Like The Signature of All Things, this is a work of historical fiction where a strong woman takes center stage. The tremendous research and period detail are impressive in this story, but they take a backseat to the characters. Set mainly during the American Civil War, Mary Sutter wants to be a surgeon. This is an outlandish idea. Modern surgery is in its infancy, and even having female nurses caring for male patients is considered improper. Not to be deterred, Mary leaves her comfortable home and volunteers at the front lines to learn as much as she can. I admired Mary’s fierce determination and her resolve. The central question here: how far will you go to follow your destiny?

 

The Sugar SeasonFor those who want to read about business moguls who wear plaid flannel: The Sugar Season, by Douglas Whynott. Syrup is just what you drizzle on your pancakes. How interesting could that be? Fascinating, actually. Like many crops, maple trees and their sap output used to be in the hands of small, local farmers. Now it’s big business, monitored by a cartel (really!) in Canada and regulated in much the same way as oil. In fact a barrel of syrup is worth more than a barrel of oil. The Sugar Season takes us through a year in the life of one of Vermont’s largest producers. I had no idea how much hard work it takes to get just one gallon of the liquid gold, and how susceptible it is to even the slightest variations in weather. Read it and understand why the $18 million maple syrup heist is being made into a Hollywood movie.

 

9781624672477-PerfectFor those who want to know if you can go home again: Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears, by Ken Wheaton. A pretty sweet segue (get it?). I am fortunate to have had a sneak peak into this novel as it was coming together.  Here is the gist: Fifty years old, lonely, and in danger of being laid off, Katherine has spent decades trying to ignore her Louisiana roots. Forced home by her sister’s accident, she remembers everything about the bayou that she wanted to escape: the heat, the mosquitoes, and the constant, crushing embrace of family. But when forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she discovers that escape might never have been necessary. Admittedly, I’m a bit biased here—Ken and I have been friends for *#%@ years, and we are in the same writing group. But I wouldn’t recommend his novel if I didn’t think it was terrific. I’m always impressed by Ken’s ability to weave an excellent, compelling story that is both touching and keeps me turning the pages.

 

 

Gifts of ImperfectionFor those who want to live wholeheartedly: The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown. I was introduced to Brene Brown via the TED Talk heard ’round the world, which led me to her book Daring Greatly. So I couldn’t help but pick up The Gifts of Imperfection. Brene shares what she’s learned (she’s a research professor at the University of Houston) about worthiness and shame, and how to engage with the world from a place of compassion. She offers ten guideposts on what she calls “wholehearted” living, all of which are geared toward helping us embrace imperfection. And you don’t have to consider yourself a perfectionist to be afraid of imperfection. She says that many of us want to “fit in” or “people-please,” but that trades authenticity for approval. “Choosing authenticity means…cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.” Many a-ha moments for me!

 

Claudia must dieFor those who like stories with twists and turnsClaudia Must Die, by T.B. Markinson. This book is next on my TBR list. T.B. is a friend and fellow blogger who writes novels (and great pub reviews). Here is the synopsis. Doesn’t this sound like a real page-turner? Claudia doesn’t feel like herself anymore—she feels like prey. Her husband’s hired goons have stalked her all the way to Boston and will only stop their pursuit once she is dead. Divorce is not an option. Instead, she has stolen a bunch of her man’s money to disappear into another life. In order for Claudia to live, someone else must die. A lookalike college student becomes the target capable of freeing her from an awful marriage. The plan goes horribly awry. Instead of murdering Claudia’s double, the assassins shoot the woman’s lover who is the cousin of a powerful Irish mobster. Claudia becomes hunted by all involved. Can she survive? Should she?

 

The Rooms Are FilledFor those who enjoy a good coming-of-age story: The Rooms Are Filled, by Jessica Null Vealitzek. There is something so satisfying in the retelling of this common human experience, and Jessica gets it spot on. The two main characters are Michael, a boy who is uprooted to suburban Chicago from his farm after his father dies, and his teacher, who hasn’t yet come to terms with her sexuality. I was rooting for both characters, wanting the best for them and hoping they could find their way to acceptance. I love that these two outcasts find each other, providing comfort that only people who understand that feeling can provide. The prose is crisp and distinct. The plot is tightly focused with enough twists and turns to keep a reader turning the page. This is a wonderful debut!

 

Looking for more Great Books to Give…and Get? Check out the previous lists: 2013, 201220112010

What are some of your favorite books from 2014? Share in comments. 

 

The One with Back to the Future

I was walking Reggie in the early evening darkness when I saw the faint outline of my neighbor approaching. I’d been hoping to run into her. I had to ask if it was her name listed in the credits of a popular literature webisode. She has an unusual name, which nearly jumped off the screen when I saw it scroll by. We chatted for a few minutes while Reggie sniffed her baby’s feet. (He loves baby feet and will try to lick them if left to his own devices.)  She said she was indeed one of the writers for the series, aimed at high school and college students. And, well, the rest of the embarrassing conversation played out something like this:

Me: The clips are so well written. It must be hard to boil Hamlet down to a ten-minute segment. And make it funny. How did you get this gig?

Neighbor: A friend works on the series and suggested I would be a good fit. I used to write sketch comedy and I have a PhD in comparative literature. When else could I use both of those in the same job?

[Laughter]

Me: It’s like a Venn diagram of probability. I have a Master’s in creative writing and…

The rest of the conversation was a bit of a blur. Luckily, she didn’t seem put off.  Did I really try to impress her with my measly MFA? The degree I only talk about under duress, lest I invoke PTSD flashbacks? Why on earth would I try to one-up her?

This is not the first time (and, sadly, probably not the last) I’ve wanted to turn back the last thirty seconds, gobble up my words, and replace them with something less obnoxious. I know I’m not alone. I recently read that 9 percent of Americans are dreaming of time travel. NPR went a step further and took the question to the streets: Why?

While some people would like to go back in time to change a terrible event (“I’d kill Hitler,” several respondents said), most people were like me and would want to fix something personal.

Girl: If I could time travel, I’d go back and fix all the awful, awful mistakes I’d done. Because there’s so much stuff that you just think of, like when you’re lying in bed, you’re like, oh my God, that’s so embarrassing.

Interviewer: Well, wait. Hang on a second though. You’re only 11.

Girl: Yeah. I’ve got a lot of things I want to change.

A fair number of respondents (older than 11, I presume) would want to go back to advise their younger selves. “Don’t let that opportunity get away.” “Whatever you do, don’t take that job,” “You’ll want to get your MFA…just go to the gym until the feeling passes.”

Another girl recognized that this could be dangerous. “I mean, I’d love to do it. And I’m sure everyone would love to go back in time and change some things. But it’d ruin things a bit too. Well, experiences that people might not call experiences, people might call mistakes. Even though at that time, they make you sad, if you go back and change everything like that, then you don’t learn. So you’re sad more often.”

back to the future

There’s a desire to “fix” the past, right wrongs, and erase mistakes with the advantage of hindsight that only comes with having made the mistake in the first place. Although Marty McFly tried not to disturb the events of the past, it’s natural to want to change things that we said or did, be they minor gaffs or life-changing fiascos. What we really want to do is mitigate regret.

Each one of these regrets is a lesson on what to do next time. Maybe that is a kind of time travel—into the future. Can someone get me a DeLorean?

Would you time travel if you could? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

The One with the Books of My Life

Books help me live a passionate life. I’m surrounded by them all day, every day. I have stacks of books on my nightstand, on my office bookshelves, in my backpack. On weekends, I spend time at the library and in my neighborhood bookstore. I subscribe to newsletters about books and follow bloggers who write about books. And I never tire of them. It’s one of the few interests I have that has spanned most of my life. So I was intrigued by a popular magazine’s feature story about how hobbies can define our lives. Insert your hobby and think about how you would you answer these questions.

 

My favorite childhood booksNancy Drew
The Nancy Drew series. A girl detective. Right on!

A book I read in secret
Judy Blume’s Forever. There was one contraband copy in my school, which was passed around with all the “important” pages dogeared for easy reference. Now, of course, that book is tamer than a Robin Thicke video.

The books I’ve read over and over
I return to these books because I learn something new each time I read them, but more specifically I learn something new about myself.  Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.  To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. “Song of Myself,” by Walt Whitman

A classic I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read
Oh good Lord, but Moby-Dick. I’ve tried. I really have. But the moment after I read “Call me Ishmael” I close the cover. Every time.

A book I consider to be overrated
I hate to call any book overrated. Some books just don’t speak to me personally (see: Moby-Dick), but they still have value. But if you’re going to twist my arm: Ulysses. I wonder what all the fuss is about. I know. I’m in the minority.

brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

 

The books I wish I’d written
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin. His prose is clean and straight-forward. Each word is so carefully chosen. He’s not pulling any gimmicky funny business. And yet… it’s riveting. The characters take center stage and their world slowly builds around you while you’re reading. Before you know it, you’re enveloped in it and you don’t even know how it happened. And all I want to know is, how? How does he do it? I’ve got Nora Webster on my shelf and I’m both excited and nervous to open the cover.

 

The novels people might be surprised to learn I love
I enjoy the irreverent Jeeves. I don’t usually go in for slapstick comedy and general buffoonery, but the Jeeves-Wooster combination is pure fun. I highly recommend the audio versions of the Jeeves books. There’s something about the cadence of Wodehouse’s words that are even better when read aloud.

The last book that made me laugh…and the last one that made me cry
Oh, David Sedaris. You had me at hello.

I’ve gotten teary in certain bittersweet sections of Me Before You and Eleanor & Park (both wonderful reads), but I needed to keep a tissue handy for Between Shades of Grayby Ruta Sepetys, a story about keeping hope alive when all else is lost.

My favorite movie versions of books
I’m usually in the book-was-better-than-the-movie camp. That said, I thought The Book Thief, Atonement, and Brokeback Mountain were very good adaptations. Can I list To Kill a Mockingbird again?

What I’m reading right now
Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning Last Orders. about four men who are charged with scattering their friend’s ashes at sea. I’m still getting to know the characters

Why I read
Reading is an act of empathy. That’s true of bad vampire fiction and experimental beat prose and Swedish thrillers. It connects us to each other by conversations just like this one through the universality of common human experiences.

“We read to know that we are not alone.” — C.S. Lewis

 

Do you have any lifelong hobbies? How has it defined your life? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!