Old Haunts, Great Friends, and New Faces

I am sitting at the Crema Cafe bar in Harvard Square while I await tonight’s book reading. Mary Karr, author of The Liars Club, will be signing and talking about her recent book The Art of Memoir. The Liars Club is a memoir; The Art of Memoir discusses Ms. Karr’s process for writing one. I’ve read memoir, but not hers. Not yet.

I recently devoured a piece of bread pudding made with cherries and bourbon. An iced chai latte keeps me company at the bar. A couple stands chatting next to their food at the bar on the other side of their chairs. Her voice comes directly at my ears, an unwelcome distraction.

I drove to Massachusetts yesterday for this event. My friends – The Bs – graciously offered to host me for two nights and a gathering of friends so I could see a whole bunch of mutual friends at once. Some friends I last saw at our own going away party; others, much longer than that. I love it when you haven’t seen friends in a while. Then you meet up. It’s like you never left. I had that last night. Thank you, dear friends!!

After breakfast, I took a leisurely half-milk walk down a shady street to Fawn Lake. I took the walking path strewn with pine needles and gnarly tree roots. The path wound near and away from the edge of the lake. Some lily pads already turned peaches and browns. One lily made its way back and forth away from the pad depending on the strength of the wind. I crouched down near the water, peering into murky depths. I thought I saw vermicelli down there.

On one side of the lake stood a small island. Mallards looped their heads under water and back again before diving up and down. After soaking their wings, they beat the surface of the water to shake them out. Tufts of feathers stretched out from them as if chicken had just been roused from their coup. A section of elm tree trunk was set up as a natural bench to rest on.

As I came around the bend, the shore came close to the geese. They stared at me like a bull in a ring. A triangle of them floated toward the shore at me in case I decided to make any sudden moves. I realized that I still held a fear of geese. I imagined myself racing away in terror as they beat at me with their wings and bit my hands. Wherever I saw a clearing, I stood and took in the sights – the tree line, the lily pads, the rippling water, and the partially cloudy skies.

Near the end of my path, I saw on a bench in the shade and closed my eyes. I let myself be lulled by the rustling of the leaves by the wind all around me. Sitting, I almost fell asleep. After I returned, I lay down for a nap before lunch. I accompanied my friend on an errand before driving myself into Cambridge MA for the book talk and singing. Tomorrow, I return home. On my way, I’ll take my 93 year old aunt out to lunch first. Who knows when I’ll get to see her again?

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Book Spotlight: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I only recently became aware of Ta-Nehisi Coates from an article on Rawstory.com or Salon.com. Once my interest was piqued, I requested a copy of the book from the library. In the intervening time, I read at least two fiction novels. Delving into fictional worlds is my primary method of escapism and helps me forget a lot of things I would rather not remember. It unfortunately also includes a lot of things that I might rather remember instead, like what I liked about him that made me want to read his books.

I knew ahead of time that he had written the book as a long letter to his son, Salomi. I rather like that kind of one sided conversation that an author has with a particular reader, the most poignant being from a parent to a child or vice versa. When I first started writing in an online journal to read by my friends, thinking of them helped me frame my thoughts. Reading this book is being on the listening end of a very private and emotional conversation filled with love, fear, and hope.

What I like most is that he writes plainly and openly to his son. Coates does not soften his words because they are not cruel, simply the truth of what it is to experience life as a black man in America. He does not exaggerate to bolster a claim that lacks a solid foundation. His experience lights his truth. He does not hide his thoughts from his son or from us. His raw honesty to his son about what to expect in life gives his writing strength, depth, and insight. I also think that his honesty and unwillingness to look away from the truth comes not only from his experience as a black man, but as an atheist. He has no God or spirituality to fall back on, just the realization that life is beautiful and precious and irreplaceable because it is the only one that we have.

In the midst of reading, I saw again that there are some things that I will never understand about the black experience. Black bodies can be taken and abused, crushed, and killed at any time in way that happens much less with white bodies. Justice almost never comes. Mr. Coates’ honesty about this and his unwillingness to be anything but honest for his son’s sake form a gripping narrative interwoven with examples from his personal life, along with others.

There are some things I understand better or differently after reading Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not all of these conclusions can be traced to the book. Some things that I see now or more clearly include:

  • The foundation of American commerce was built on black bodies, i.e. slavery. To call it slavery disguises reality: black bodies were controlled and put to use for the profit of their white owners.
  •  In the Civil War, the Confederate South did not want to give up their right to enslave black bodies for profit. Calling this a way of life disguises what happened to black bodies.
  • Despite the North winning the Civil War or the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments or The Voting Rights Act or The Civil Rights movement or #BlackLivesMatter, institutionalized racism exists. As long as it exists, black and brown bodies suffer disproportionately.
  • It seems that some whites are still angry that they cannot enslave black bodies and have been busy trying to punish them ever since. They do not want to give up a defeated flag. They do not want welfare. They do not want affordable health care. They want black bodies to go to work to get off welfare, but make laws that prevent people with jail time from getting hired. And they especially do not want to give up their flags or give welfare or see people covered by health insurance or hire someone if it’s going to help black bodies and hurt poor white bodies. As long it doesn’t hurt rich white bodies, anything’s on the table. They want to call it a way of life or tradition. They want to silence the truth of black bodies, voices, minds, and expression with their revisionist histories.
  • Black bodies are blamed for their violence done to their bodies as rape victims are blamed for their rapes. Blackness automatically equals a thug. Black bodies are told to “be twice as good”, as if this could save them from being beaten killed in the same way that telling a woman to be “twice as modest” wouldn’t work to prevent rape. Rape exists in the land of the burka. Death of black bodies because of institutionalized racism exists in the land of the free.
  • As long as people live in a Dream that there is such a thing as white and it has a singular ethnicity or is associated with lightness, goodness, and righteousness, black bodies will continue to live in danger for speaking too loudly, for playing music too loud, for posing like a “thug”, for wearing a hoodie, for not pulling over for a plain clothes police officer driving an unmarked vehicle in the middle of nowhere, for playing with a toy rifle at a playground.
  • The only solution to break up the systemic and institutionalized racism is to break the Dream. There is no one true white race. Racism is a physical experience for black bodies because their bodies are often not under their control to save; they cannot get or expect justice when harmed. That is the reserve of the privileged, of white bodies.

When I first read the title, it sounded similar to the phrase “between you and me” as in “this is our little secret.” However, the title signifies something much deeper and more sinister. There is a breach between the world at large and Ta-Nehisi Coates, between the world of the white bodies and black bodies. Racism and the dream of whiteness sundered the worlds of white and black bodies with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. Black bodies have not been the only ones at the bottom, but they have been at the bottom of the American Dream since America’s inception.

Let’s tear that shit down. I believe that we have a much better future ahead of us, if only we’d dare. The way it is now is not sustainable or right in any sense of the word.

I Finally Read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

Please Note: Spoilers!

Many years ago, I saw the movie (1962) on TV with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford as Scout and Jem, and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. (Any movie with Gregory Peck (or Cary Grant) is a movie worth watching, in my opinion, and To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) was no exception.) With all the hullabaloo with the release of Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) by author Harper Lee, I decided to finally read TKAM.

I had read online in a couple of different articles that, in Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch was a racist. One article in particular blasted Atticus’ attitude through TKAM as a white man’s paternalistic attitude. I wanted to immerse myself in Scout’s world before going on to read GSAW and to look for signs of paternalism and racism in TKAM. Since it had been years since I watched the movie, I wondered if maybe I had missed something when I had seen it. I was also interested in seeing if there was a thread of consistency between the two novels in Atticus’ character.

When I picked up my TKAM from the library, one of the regular librarians assisted me. As he checked the book out to me, I explained that I was reading the book for the first time in preparation for reading the sequel. He forcefully instructed me to not read GSAW. He then told me that Atticus Finch in TKAM had been his hero growing up, and that GSAW was not nearly as well written as Lee’s first novel. I told him that I had read that criticism of her writing elsewhere. I mentioned to him that even her publisher had sent GSAW back to Lee, asking her to write about Scout’s young life instead. To Kill a Mockingbird was the lovely result. In any case, I had to read TKAM so I went home with the book and began to read.

A couple of things stood out to me. Although I looked for signs of white man’s paternalism in TKAM from Atticus Finch, I found no evidence of that. I am a white woman, so take my opinion for what it’s worth: just an opinion. Atticus Finch treated everyone with respect in that novel, no matter what their station in life and, even more amazingly, no matter how they treated other people. He understood that people were a product of their environments. Some people had hard lives and hard situations that, even when the other people are at their worst, deserve our respect and sympathy. Whether it was Bob Ewell, Nathan Radley, or Mrs. Dubose, it was Atticus Finch’s compassion for others that made him the least paternalistic or racist person on the planet.

I did discover one instance of a paternalistic attitude, but it wasn’t towards any of the African Americans in town, it was towards women. In one scene, Atticus jokes with Jem that the reason that there are no women on the jury is because “I doubt if we’d ever get a complete case tried—the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.” That was the only instance that came close to any of the -isms, but it would not be enough to convince me that Atticus was sexist. That was not really one of the issues meant to be addressed in TKAM anyway; it would have been racism, if anything.

Another thing I noticed is that Lee took pains to say at least twice in clear writing that the reason why the townspeople were unhappy with Atticus Finch is that he had committed the unforgivable act of wanting to defend Tom Robinson. Yes, Atticus had been appointed, but he wanted to serve as a defender of Tom Robinson. When Tom Robinson was shot trying to escape, it was Calpurnia and Atticus who went to Mrs. Robinson’s home to deliver the bad news. So, no, I do not believe that Atticus Finch is in any way, shape, or form racist nor displays white man’s paternalism in TKAM.

What really struck me about TKAM was how much of the book went to talk about the games that the children played. The children Jem, Scout, and Dill work themselves up to be scared of the secretive Radley family next door and scheme to get a closer look. All three take turns make up games during the three summers that they shared together. I’m guessing that at least a third of the book is about the games that the children played.

I liked that the book was written from Scout’s point of view. Children are more innocent, especially in the mid-1930s when this story was set, and see things more clearly, without as many prejudices that we have as adults (although definitely more imagination). I found it to be a believable filter for the story because children can notice things as they are more than adults.

I also noticed that Harper Lee’s birthday was 1926. That means that, during her childhood years, she would have been about the same age that Scout was when the story takes place. Makes me wonder whether anything like this happened in her life that she saw.

When I turned in TKAM, the librarian whom I saw was not there. I didn’t see him until a few days later. I told him what I told you here. I find it hard to believe that the Atticus Finch in TKAM would have suddenly become all sorts of racist by the time GSAW takes place.  If Atticus is actually portrayed as racist in Go Set A Watchman, then they can be treated as two different books.

I still plan on reading Go Set A Watchman, but my expectations are that the writing will be poorer and the characters different.

For The Love of Libraries

When I was in elementary school, I went to the library frequently. I would take out as many books as they would let me. I’ve seen it even now. Children walk out with a pile of books in their arms as their mothers hold open the door for them. I know I’m not the only one who tried to read entire sections of the children’s library because I loved reading so much.

As I grew into middle school, I started visiting the adult section. I remember sitting upstairs on the floor while thumbing through philosophy books, such as Kant and Kierkegaard. Hidden among these stacks was where I first encountered the atheist writer Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. I loved that library.

After I went to college, I no longer had time for recreational reading. All my spare time went to reading the subjects I studied in Business School at BU. Even when I had time off, the last thing I wanted to do was use my brain. I stopped using my home library.

After I graduated, I restarted my use of the libraries. I was at various times a member of the Boston library system, the Somerville library system, the Malden library system, and now again I’m a member of the Floral Park library system. In the early years of the millenium, I worked for a time in two libraries in Massachusetts. But working there affects your relationship with your library. It goes from provider of entertainment to a job.

Since I work from home and writing is my game, I am back to using the library frequently. I’m in there at least twice a week to pick and return the books I’m reading. I try to read something every day, other than the Internet which can only be satisfying on a gossip and time-wasting level. Like eating too much candy, my brain soon craves something more substantial.

For years, all I read was nonfiction, especially psychology, self-help, and self-improvement. I had read some stories that I found wanting, and I no longer wanted to invest or try to find fiction books that would catch my interest. My desire for personal and psychology improvement and refinement was strong enough and satisfied enough that I put fiction reading on the back burner.

I’ve been slowly getting back into reading fiction along with my nonfiction books, although the former now outweighs the latter most often. In my quest to learn about memoir writing, I have read more than a dozen. A topic I once never thought of now captivates my interest. Ditto romance novels now that I am planning one for this upcomign November NaNoWriMo.

My hometown library looks the same on the outside. Inside, it has changed. Where a wall of encyclopedias and two long wooden desks with chairs were now sits wall bookcases light on books, a huge reference desk, a few round tables with chairs, and bigger lounge-style chairs with adjustable table tops like you might see in a college auditorium. The wall bookcases with new fiction, large print, and nonfiction are the same. The front checkout desk is the same. The staff are all changed over, but are just as attentive and helpful as ever.

My life has come full circle. I am living in the upstairs apartment of my childhood home, I can walk a few minutes to get to my library, and I can walk out with a stack of books in my hand as I use my back to hit the push bar to open the door. I once again feel pride and excitment of walking home with interesting books where, once home, I will plop on the couch to read them. The other books wait patiently for their turn in my hands.

Abandoned Books and Rediscovered Authors

As part of my research for my memoir, I have been reading a variety of memoirs that come across my path. My memoir is themed around my struggles with illness since I was born and how they affected my life. Some of the titles, such as Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani, are directly relevant; this book is about how a near-death experience changed her life.

Others are tangentially about illness but not memoirs, like Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, by Susan Sontag. I was hoping to plumb the book for insight as to how metaphoric comparisons of illness might have affected how I experienced and interpreted illness, even though Sontag talks mainly about tuberculosis (TB) and cancer, and then later, AIDS.

Sontag’s writing style seemed dense and intellectual, drawing on a truly staggering number of literary references that demonstrated illness (TB and cancer) and its metaphors through fiction, such as in the operas La Traviata and La Bohème. In this manner, the book reminded me of a history tome, filled with date after date after date. Sontag also seems to repeat herself as if there was only so much that she could say about it, but her publisher made her try and stretch the thoughts way past their prime. I mentally pushed myself through about 70 pages of the book before setting it aside. I really hate doing that, but I hate torturing myself through repetitive, difficult to read books.

And in my procrastinations yesterday to avoid writing, I decided the next best thing was to read articles related to writing. This quickly lead me to the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (DFW). I tried getting into his novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King, but I abandoned both because I could not get into the stream of consciousness that his writing seemed to be. I tried. I had read about how beloved DFW was both to his readers and critics, and I wanted to be one of his fan boys. But I had to come to the conclusion that his writing wasn’t for me.

Until now.

I was sitting at Argo Tea on a corner of 7th Avenue and West 26th Street in New York City with a writer friend. I quickly began laughing out loud and hastening my hand to cover my mouth. You know when you find something so funny that you immediately want to start making eye contact with everyone around you and telling them about it? That was me yesterday at the Argo Tea.

Here’s a little tidbit of his writing after which I had one of many outbursts:

I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeet shooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is. I now know the precise mixological difference between a Slippery Nipple and a Fuzzy Navel. I know what a Coco Loco is. I have in one week been the object of over 1500 professional smiles. I have burned and peeled twice. I shot skeet at sea. Is this enough? At the time it didn’t seem like enough.

It’s not just his descriptions of things that makes reading the Supposedly Fun essay such a joy. Right away, you come to understand that this essay truly reflects his actual first person thoughts and feelings, uncensored and as they are. How easy it would be for DFW to pretend to feel something that he did not and make it seem real? Very. He shares his impressions of the staff, the other people at dinner Table 64, and his struggles with semi-agoraphobia that teeter him on the edge of whether he is going out of the cabin or whether he shall avail himself of room service.

What hit me deeply in reading this essay by DFW, however, was his repeated mentions of death, despair, and loneliness. In 2008 at the age of 46, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Pictures of him often show him with a wrap around his head, hair disheveled, and a pained expression on his face. Even in an essay that he wrote when he was sent on a cruise for pay and asked to write an article, the pain came with him. When you have major depression and anxiety, there is no holiday or cruise that you can take that will separate you from the pain. If only there were, maybe DFW would have found a way to be with us still.

Kinda Sorta Done with YA Dystopia

In between reading memoirs, I am driven to engulf myself in some kind of fantasy novel that will erase the empathetic pain I feel for the writers. The last memoir I read is Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within by Gayatri Ramprasad, another gripping tale. Somewhere in the middle of reading these memoirs, I start to feel a little sick, reliving my bouts of depression through the lens of their lives.

Someone I know mentioned that they were looking for stories similar Hunger Games / Divergent / Maze Runner for their summer reading. Because I loved The Hunger Games, I decided to pick up the entire Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth from my library the other day. I think there’s a part deep inside of me that hopes I can scrub the terrible feelings from my psyche by plunging myself into an alternate reality.

Roth’s story and pacing are gripping, and I do like it. However, I feel like I still loved The Hunger Games a lot more. It’s kind of like when you eat the best chocolate cake you can ever eat in your life and then go on to eat nearly-as-good chocolate cake. You taste the difference. But here I am, most of the way through book three (Allegiant) because I have to find out what happens to everyone. I want to know the whole system is gonna break down.

Earlier this year I read another YA dystopia novel called The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings, book one of a three book series. I enjoyed that quite a bit, too. The second one is out, and I am waiting for the libraries to order copies. I could only find 1 copy available, and that’s already been taken out. So I have to wait for the end of the month.

While reading the Divergent series, I have been thinking underneath why it is that maybe this series isn’t as interesting to me as other ones I have read just like it. All three stories have female protagonists who live in a society structured to “fix” the problems with human nature and society. All three heroines defy the odds, find their inner strength, have relationships, make mistakes, deal with guilt and consequences, and somehow find their way into winning at the end.

And, just like that, I think I’m just done with this genre for a while. The formula is too obvious and similiar to the others that it takes out some of the enjoyment for me. It makes me feel like I’m reading the same thing again, even though I am not.

I like fantasy, but I need to find a fantasy series that doesn’t follow the pattern I described. I need something else, something different, and, by its difference, something by more interesting.

If anyone has suggestions for fantasy (some sci fi is OK), please tell me!

A Pursuit of Happiness

February is six months that I have been working with a trainer. I had hoped that working out would decrease the pain and increase the ability of my muscles to handle exertion, but it has not done so. I have gained muscle, lost fat, and seen my body reshape itself into a somewhat leaner one. My health and diet seem to be improving.

Because the pain medications I take do not address the underlying cause of my problem and because vitamin deficiencies I have are associated with these medications, I am in a slow, long-term process of testing whether I can reduce and eventually eliminate my pain medications.

Despite all this, I have been feeling blah and apathetic. I have made few attempts at writing in the last few months. I have been wasting a lot of time reading online news that depresses me; I seem to be addicted to certain Internet sites.

I am struggling with my online habits. I need to stop the time wasting and get back to the activities that made me happy last year: writing every or most days. I have been happiest when I have pursued activities that interest me, and I need to get back to that. I want the kind of happiness that is acquired via the pursuit of fulfilling activities. That’s writing. Exercising. Eating well.

And training my brain to be more upbeat and positive. Not working towards goals only keeps me feeling ‘depressed’ where ‘depressed’ is code for ‘bored’ and ‘not doing anything fun or useful to oneself.’ A dear friend posted a link to Shawn Achor, Harvard positive psychology professor and author of several books, including The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. First, I watched a 12-minute TED talk called The Happy Secret to Better Work followed by an hour-long talk he gave at Google. The Google talk includes the same content and wording that is included in the longer Google talk. I also bookmarked a few other talks on the subject of positive psychology.

In Shawn’s TED talk, he put up a slide called Creating Lasting Positive Change. Achor suggests that, for a 21 day period, you do the following:

  • Write 3 things for which you are grateful every day. Each day, write about 3 new things (Emmons & McCullough, 2003);
  • Once a day, journal about one good thing that happened to you in the last 24 hours. Our brains get to relive a happy memory twice, enhancing its effect (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006);
  • Exercise so that you train your body to know what feeling good feels like (Babyak et al., 2000);
  • Meditate to help your mind dampen down the negative states (Dweck, 2007); and
  • Perform random acts of kindness to share your positivity and goodness with others (Lyubomirsky, 2005). Goodness knows that the world needs it – desperately!

The effect of doing this is that it helps rewire your brain to start looking for the positive. We know how much negative news is out there. In fact, it’s almost like the understanding is that it’s not really news if it isn’t awful. I feel it happening to me when I read my news sites, when I scroll through my Facebook feed. Rants about politics, stories about people performing acts of hatred, mutilation, and murder on one another.

And then what? I’ve just spent hours reading negative material that drains my energy and doesn’t do anything for me because I’m not doing anything. How does something like that enhance me, my relationships, and the rest of the world? The short answer is that it does not. Something must change.

And the only thing that I can really count on to change is myself. I am the one who has to take the next positive steps – to stop reading news for hours, to put my writing first, to defer time wasters to the evening in timed segments so avoid the endless negative news absorption, and to change my outlook.

And begin writing every day again.

I can do this.

You can, too (whether writing or otherwise).