Imagined possibilities

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.” -Ursula K. Le Guin

I only have one criterion for judging a book or movie/TV show: does it offer an emotionally honest, thoughtful, and nuanced perspective of human relationships that allows us to imagine new possibilities for our lives? For having only one box to check, far too few works actually meet this criterion. Most present life and its interactions/miscommunications in a predictable, unproductive trajectory and allow us to go on living how we always have, sometimes even offering ways of doing it worse than we have. As the opening quote would suggest, this might not be an accident– certainly, there are people who profit from keeping things as they are, from bombarding us with mindlessness, and from perpetuating the myth that what we see is human nature, leading us to believe that ‘we can’t change our nature. But I don’t believe that myth, and I’m longing for better ways to live; I think we all need our imaginations to be challenged to come up with some. That is why Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home impressed me so much: it offered an entirely different mode of life in such a comprehensive and thorough manner that I came away feeling like so much more was possible, that we don’t have to follow the same old script.

With Always Coming Home, I took a long time to figure out what I was even reading. I thought I had picked up a novel, so I was quite confused when the novel-like portion of the book stopped all of the sudden with a note that it would pick up 150 or so pages later. What could possibly take that long to get back to the story? I wondered. Eventually, I realized that I had picked up a fictionalized archive, anthropological and literary in nature, making it feel like both a study of a civilization and also a library of that civilization. The more I read, the more in awe of Le Guin I became– she created an entire language for this book! It was incredible.

Once I realized that this was a collection of pieces of a civilization– one that supposedly exists years in the future after we all mostly die from the toxic poisons we pump into ourselves and our earth– I was able to start grasping what that civilization valued and how it worked. This is what made the book pass my test. The characteristics most valued were generosity, mindfulness, and equanimity; those least valued were violence (war), power, and greed. Wealth was measured by how much a household gave to others; keeping things for oneself was looked down upon. Hunting was for adolescents and viewed as something to grow out of. Poems and songs were almost always written to be given away. Animals and nature were respected and were even called people in the book’s language; humans were seen as part of nature, not separate from it and certainly not above it. Family lines were matrilineal: men married into women’s homes, rather than women marrying into men’s, and children traced their family lines through their mothers, not their fathers. Everyone had their role in their towns, and that role helped the town meet their people’s needs. Whatever they in the town couldn’t make by themselves, they traded for with other towns. Their lives didn’t sound easy, but they did sound meaningful. They lived with purpose.**

What brought it all together for me and made me see more clearly this strange new world was its juxtaposition with a group of people who lived very differently than the one the book was about. This group built a city of cement, made its women stay indoors and cover their faces, hoarded their possessions rather than shared them, and spent their energy on conquering all the land and people they could. I may be slow to pick up on symbols, but I did recognize which of these two groups’ values most resembled those of the society I have grown up in. And the reflection was not a pretty one. It made the other way of living that much more appealing, that much more profound. (It was suggested that this conquering group of people self-sabotaged themselves somehow to the point of disintegration– their hunger for power was not sustainable; their source of power not true.)

Still, many things that seem self-evident to me are debated by others. I read this book and tried to hear the voices that would argue that this alternative way of life would actually be better. I feel very strongly about using my singular question to guide my book and movie preferences, though I understand that judging someone for not doing something they didn’t intend to do in the first place isn’t very fair. But I want to have more hopeful, more imaginative conversations sparked by more hopeful, more imaginative inventions. I am not interested in the same old methods and same old lines we are familiar with. Even if someone doesn’t like an invention such as Always Coming Home and can articulate where they disagree, we can nevertheless have a worthwhile conversation about that. We just have to keep looking for better alternatives until we’ve created it ourselves. Le Guin wrote it best in her book:

“We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth.”

We can’t stop looking.

 

 

**I wouldn’t read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz until later, where I learned that such practices were not invented by Le Guin but rather by the indigenous peoples of the United States before there was ever such a thing as the ‘United States’. There is an uncanny resemblance particularly between the Haudenosaunee people and those described in Always Coming Home. This adds a whole other layer to the book, creating an ironic yet profound circle of sorts by having society return, through its own destruction, to what it was before society destroyed it.

A photographic history

When we were kids, my siblings and I would put in one of our home videos and watch ourselves as even younger kids do whatever things kids do in front of cameras. We loved it, waiting for our moment in the spotlight and then laughing at the absolutely hilarious things we said or did. It was our way of affirming about our own family what David Sedaris wrote about his:  “Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of.”

So, being home over Thanksgiving and Christmas, I did something reminiscent of those home-video-watching days: I sifted through old photographs of my family, most of which I don’t remember having seen before. My siblings weren’t around to laugh with me, though, so I laughed by myself and tried to get my mom and dad–whichever was passing through the kitchen (or not working) at the moment– to join in when I’d find a really good one. I made stacks of the ones I wanted to keep and then used an iPhone to take pictures of them so that I’d be able to look at them whenever I wanted. (I didn’t want the responsibility of carrying around the originals, for fear I’d lose them or ruin them forever. The downside is that some of my pictures-of-pictures aren’t very good, because lights and shadows are just hard to work with, you know?)

One might think that I would have gotten tired of looking at old photos at that point, especially old photos that I had already looked at. But I hadn’t. I wasn’t tired of it at all, and the more I looked at them, the more I wanted to look at them. I went through them on my phone after going through their physical copies, and I would stop at each one, studying it, as if fitting it into a puzzle. In fact, that’s exactly what I was doing: in these photographs, I found pieces of my childhood that I didn’t know existed and pieces of myself that I didn’t know were so visible. These photographs told a slightly different story than the one my siblings and I have come up with about ourselves over the past several years; they were an anchor to an otherwise free-floating and constantly-adapting sense of self and family. In statistics, the more data you have showing a particular pattern, the more you can trust that it is telling you something. There were so many photographs showing the same patterns, and the more I studied them, the more I started trusting what they were saying.

In the beginning (my beginning, of course), the photographs of my sister Caitlin and me show an adoring younger sister (me) and a lively, animated older sister (Caitlin). Her hair was constantly messy, her face smiling, and her posture always caught in some movement. Meanwhile, I looked on with eyes of admiration. My smile was one of pride, and even though I don’t show as much fearlessness or carefreeness, I look like I’m just happy to be there.

When my brother Caleb was born, not much changed in Caitlin’s appearance or activity, but I had a new role: now I was an older sister, and I seemed to revel in it. From two days after Caleb was born, I am pictured holding him, cuddling him, or trying to get close to him. I must have believed he was like one of my beloved dolls come to life. Even when he is a toddler and a little boy, I am still there, hugging him, playing with him, treating him like precious cargo. I adored him.

Connor was born when Caleb was four and I was six, and the pictures are very much the same as when Caleb was born, only I was not so small. The pictures show me holding her or putting my fingers in her closed hand, and even when we’re both older– I in elementary school and she as a toddler and then an elementary school kid herself– she is seen clinging to me as I stand there with a smile, like I both welcomed it and was used to it. Not long after, our relationship would be very different, when I went through my teenage need to separate from my family to be an ‘individual.’ We eventually came back around to find each other as friends, but only after a lot of years and a lot of hurt. These pictures look so innocent and loving. It almost hurts me to look at them, knowing I was so open and affectionate at one point in my life.

The pictures that make me happiest, though, are those with my dad in them. If I had to guess, there aren’t as many pictures of my mom and us kids because she was more comfortable being behind the camera. But, as a result, we have some really good ones with my dad. He’s not doing much in some of them– just sitting, standing, or lying on his back– but he’s still engaged with us somehow, whether it’s holding us up in a circus-like hold or sitting between us as we take some weird pose around him, or even reading to one of us while the other two play in the foreground. I like these pictures because they’re reminders that our dad was present in our childhoods; he wanted to be around us.

That’s what keeps drawing me back to these pictures, I think, over and over again: the unrestrained joy, in all of its various comportments. So different from the stoicism we showed (more like I showed– see below) when others were around, these pictures show the unfiltered expression of who we are underneath all we’ve become, underneath the layers of socialization and self-consciousness. They are evidence of a happy and safe childhood, of children who were wanted by the adults in their life and who were enjoyed by them. The adults– my parents, in particular– gave us enough boundaries to feel protected, and within that safety, which cannot be overstated, we experienced the freedom to play, which in turn gave us the freedom to become. Aside from a perhaps unconscious wisdom of how fleeting childhood is, the fact that my parents took pictures and videos of us in our most candid moments reveals how much they believed our personalities worth cherishing.

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And perhaps most poignantly, they tell me something that I had forgotten through the years of hormones and silence and political discord: that not only did my parents love us, but at one point, long ago, they liked us, too. And to a child, that makes quite a difference.

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The best books that I read in 2016, pt. 2

It has been a record-breaking year for me: I’ve read 104 books so far in 2016, including a psychology textbook on love and a 500+ page autobiography of Agatha Christie (neither of which made it onto this list). I don’t know that I will ever reach that high of a number again, but I did it this year somehow, for some reason. The upside to that is that I have a lot to share. So, as promised, here are the best books I read between September and December this year (because my favorite books from the other months already have their own list).

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between-the-world-and-me

This book was mesmerizing– poetic, fierce, informed. It read like a modern James Baldwin and was written as a letter to the author’s son about growing up as a black man. His words challenged and convicted me yet inspired me at the same time. He showed a passion and a maturity that I admire– his willingness to wrestle with what he’s learned, both from others and from his own mistakes/life, is something we need more of. This book should be required reading for everyone, alongside James Baldwin and The New Jim Crow.

“I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being ‘politically conscious’—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

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“But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.”

 

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield

nine-gates

Nine essays about various aspects of poetry, they intelligently and eloquently capture an elusive topic. While an intriguing challenge to keep up with mentally, Hirshfield’s writing also made it easy for me to get lost in her selections of poems and poetic explanations. I wrote down so many excerpts to revisit and reconsider. This was such an entrancing book.

“… there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: ‘For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river–/ Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.’

[…]

Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and life.”

 

19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye

19-varieties-of-gazelle

Nye is such a beautiful writer (her book You and Yours made it into my last list). She writes from the U.S. and from Palestine, Israel, Iran; she writes about her father and her grandmother and her uncles and the people who never left their countries and the people who were killed. She wants the nonsensical violence and warring to stop, and she focuses on the people– their day-to-day lives and their kindness– to reveal over and over how crazy our world is. Her poems are sad and honest and lovely.

“Like clothes on a line saying

You will live long enough to wear me,

a motion of faith. There is this,

and there is more.”

[from Arabic Coffee]

 

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

nothing-to-envy

As something who knew virtually nothing of North Korea before reading this book, I felt I was learning something from each page. This book was as readable as an intense drama and as informative as a textbook. I was drawn in and couldn’t put it down. It is a shame that North Koreans are living like they are in our modern times. I don’t know what the answer is, but it is so sad that starvation and death at the hands of a regime are going on. This book exposes that amazingly.

“Guilt and shame are the common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive.”

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“While the persistence of North Korea is a curiosity for the rest of the world, it is a tragedy for North Koreans, even those who have managed to escape.”

 

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loitering

This is a collection of essays, loosely organized around three themes: our west, ‘strategies against extinction,’ and reading. D’Ambrosio is a gifted writer– his vocabulary is extensive, his outlook is self-deprecating and humorously gloomy, and his thought process is both equanimous and stream-of-consciousness. The fact that he came from a big family and shared both the positives of siblings and the hardships of dysfunctional parents made the essays that much more intriguing. His writing was fun for me to read and easy to get lost in.

“The difference between the truth and a cliché is the difference between what we really know and what we’ve all heard about.”

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“What’s the point of being right if it’s only safety in numbers? The history of being right and how wrong it’s turned out to be is a long one.”

 

The Moth edited by Catherine Burns

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The Moth is a podcast that shares stories told by people around the world. Before they are performed, they are carefully cultivated and worked out with the Moth editors so that they have maximum punch when delivered. This book is a collection of fifty of those stories in written form (obviously). Each story was so incredibly compelling– they made me laugh and cry and think about life. I would recommend this book to anyone. Stories are the thread that connects us to each other, and a well-told story can be exactly what we need.

“I realized that’s what life is. There are these moments of beauty, like moons and oceans, and then there are moments of horror. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and kicks you in the face. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and a pigsty, because that’s what life is. But then for a  moment it’s good. And for me that was enough.”

[from Perfect Moments by Brian Finkelstein]

 

Selected Poems by James Wright

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These poems took me immediately into the places they were about, wrapping me in a different time and environment. There was an outright disdain for the poet’s native Ohio (and America in general), yet he wrote so much about it, either because he loved it despite himself or because he wrote what he knew, what was in his bones. His love for Europe, Italy in particular, was apparent and made for lovely writing, too, but he wrote just as well about the grimier parts of life.

“Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.”

[from A Blessing]

 

It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort

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A week after miscarrying what would have been her second child, the author’s father died of cancer, and six weeks after that, her husband died of cancer, leaving her a widow with a toddler to raise alone. Despite the utter sadness of that, this book is full of hilarity and joy and love. She has three siblings with whom she is close, and not only were she and her husband partners in the true sense of that word, but you can see how much he taught her by being so kind and generous. This book was almost impossible to put down. I cried a lot and laughed a lot and am really happy a book like this was written.

“Then, we just had to decide how many kids we wanted, which seemed a great topic to have over entrées. I said four, because that is how many my parents had and it really seems like the right balance. One is unacceptable. Two is just too lonely, especially if your only other sibling is a jackass. Three is all right, I guess. But four? Four is perfect. Four teaches you your place in the order of things. You learn to be gracious when you’re on top is the hog pile (is that just a thing my family did?) and patient when you’re squished at the bottom. You learn to live with being farted on. You learn to be a part of a team.

[…]

He loved his family the way I love mine: like they are the world’s best-kept secret.”

 

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin

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This is a wonderful collection of essays and talks on ‘the writer, the reader, and the imagination.’ Le Guin is such a sharp thinker, able to bring in elements of such disparate veins of thought as feminism and Taoism and anthropology into her writing and criticisms fluidly. She is opinionated yet seems so grounded, as if I could have a conversation with her if I happened to run into her. I want to keep this book for everything I learned from it and can learn from it still.

“However, at some point, around forty or so, I began to wonder if he really knew what he was talking about any better than anybody else, or if what he knew better than anybody else was how to talk about it. The two things are easily confused.”

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“The question has been asked before but I haven’t yet got an answer that satisfies me: why do women cripple their feet while men don’t?”

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“Her work, I really think her work

isn’t fighting, isn’t winning,

isn’t being the Earth, isn’t being the Moon.

Her work, I really think her work

is finding what her real work is

and doing it,

her work, her own work,

her being human,

her being in the world.”

Pretty much The Gift of the Magi IRL

This is my own personal Gift of the Magi story, only instead of a husband and a wife, it involves a brother and sister. (And instead of their giving up what they most cherish to give the other something to complement what they most cherish, this one involves no such sacrifice on the part of the sister.) (That sister would be me.)

A few weeks ago, my brother asked me where my collection of short stories titled Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie was. He hadn’t seen it on our bookshelf, and he wanted a story to use in one of his classes. I looked at the bookshelf and around the bookshelf and under the bookshelf, but I couldn’t find the book. My heart sank. I loved that collection. Where could it be? My brother said he thought it had been in my ‘give away’ pile back when I was preparing for our move to Chicago. I couldn’t believe that I had done that, but I was in an intensely minimalist mood at the time, alternately taking truckloads of items to the trash can and Salvation Army. Maybe Blasphemy was one of the casualties– maybe in my zeal I had given it away because I saw it as excess weight. The thought made me sick.

After texting my mom to look for it at my parents’ house and making a note to myself to look for it when I was home over Thanksgiving, I resigned myself to the fact that I had stupidly put it in the wrong box and would have to live without it from now on. (I have a fatalistic view of my personal library.) Not one to let people down without a guilty conscience, I found a PDF version of a story that would work for my brother’s class and emailed it to him. He didn’t end up using it but said it would have fit perfectly. I felt a little better.

A couple weeks went by, and one day, when I got home from work, I saw a book-sized package on my porch, addressed to my brother. We order a lot of packages, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to find one there. I set it on our kitchen counter for him to see when he got home and went about my evening. What was weird to me was that after he got home, when I looked at the package, I saw his name crossed out and my name written above it. I was 90% sure that wasn’t how it was when I brought it inside, but because my brother plays innocent during pranks, I– true to form– doubted myself. He just said they must have made a mistake and that it had my name on it, so it must be for me. I shrugged, finished whatever I was doing around the house, and finally opened the thing. To my honest-to-goodness surprise (albeit not to anyone else’s), it was Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie. A brand-spankin’-new copy. There was even a note inside:

Hi Alyse, An early Christmas present, in case you run out of reading material before then. I had a feeling you’ve been looking for this one. Sincerely, definitely not your brother

It was so sweet, not least because he did it without expecting anything in return. My siblings and I don’t usually buy Christmas gifts for each other; we usually just pick a name or (like this year) don’t buy anything at all. I tried showing my gratitude, even though it seemed weaker than how I really felt, and when he went to the bathroom, I went to the shelf to find a place for it.

I stared at the puzzle for a few seconds before spotting a book that looked like the perfect size for the one I would be replacing it with. I stepped forward, put my hand up to pull it out, and right before I did, I read the spine: Blasphemy. By Sherman Alexie.

The book had been there the whole time.

I yelled. (Because Caleb was busy at the moment, I had to yell through the bathroom door to tell him what happened.) I wanted to melt into the ground. I felt terrible. He had done this incredibly thoughtful thing, and then I had to ruin it by making it redundant. Back into the package and through the mail the book had to go; between the legs went my tail. He came out of the bathroom, and we came up with all the reasons we had missed it the first several times we looked for it: the writing was small, the spine was white when we were looking for a blue one, there was nothing to catch our eye, etc. Yet it had been the first book I went to move when I got the new one. Kills me.

By now it should be clear how this parallels the Gift of the Magi (as in, not much). There is a common thread, though: two people sacrificially getting each other what they no longer need. My brother got me a book I thought I had given away that I actually still had, and I got my brother nothing (which he definitely didn’t need). But no matter how sad it seems, in the end in both cases, there was nothing left to do but laugh. (Actually, I don’t really remember how The Gift of the Magi ends. Let’s just say, for the purpose of this post, it ends with them laughing.) So laugh we did.

The best books that I read in 2016, pt. 1

This year has been a record year for me in terms of number of books read. I am well past eighty at this point, and October isn’t even over yet. So I’ve decided to make two separate posts with my book recommendations from this year: one for the books I read between January and August, and another for books I read from September to December. For obvious reason, part 2 of this installment won’t be up for a few months, but in the meantime, part 1 should provide some worthy reading material for those in need of a good book recommendation.

 

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

bluets

A short collection of thoughts (meditations) on the color blue and its relation to life and love. Philosophical, honest, and thought-provoking. I loved its poeticism. I’d love to revisit this one at some point.

“For to wish to forget how much you loved someone– and then, to actually forget– can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”


After Birth by Elisa Albert

after-birth

This was the book that actually got me started on making these book lists public. I wanted every person I knew to enjoy the perfection that was this book, and I didn’t know how to let them know. So I decided to make recommended book lists from previous years’ readings so that by the time I got to 2016, it wouldn’t seem weird or out of place. This is a short novel about the first year after the narrator gives birth to her only son, and it covers themes of female relationships, societal expectations of women (in general and for child-rearing in particular), marriage, and parenting. It was exactly what being a parent was like for me: the depression, the isolation, the love for the child while craving my own life and independence again. I loved this book. I think every new mom should read it.

“Another day gone, okay, and I get it, I got it: I’m over. I no longer exist. This is why there’s that ancient stipulation about the childless being ineligible for the study of religious mysticism. This is why there’s all that talk about kid having as express train to enlightenment. You can meditate, you can medicate, you can take peyote in the desert at sunrise, you can self-immolate, or you can have a baby, and disappear.”

 

Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest

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A collection of poetry centered on the mythology of Tiresias, who was born a man but spent seven years as a woman before being turned back into a man and being blinded. The poems are part prophecy, part confession, and some of them gave me chills. The best one, I think, is “Man Down,” which touched on accessing the male and female within us all– a very Jungian idea. I would love to read these again to understand them better.

“And he saw then: no matter how far you have come,

you can never be further than right where you are.”

[from The Man Tiresias]

 

Freud’s Blind Spot, edited by Elisa Albert

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An anthology of essays about siblings in all their various forms and intimacies and strains– my heart is still aching from the last one. Some were not very interesting to me (probably because they don’t resemble my own sibling relationship), but many more were funny or poignant or spot-on with my own experience (“Who Will Save Us Now?” by Nalini Jones could have been written by my older sister). The introduction alone– about the editor’s own siblings– was heartbreaking.

“The story of my siblings is the story of who I am. I suppose this is true for all of us. How do we write the stories of who we are? If there were only one answer, life would be very, very boring.”

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“It can’t be easy to be related to us. By which I mean me.”

 

thx thx thx by Leah Dieterich

thx-thx-thx

A cute and creative collection of thank-you notes to both animate and inanimate objects, they made me see some things in a new (and grateful) light. I loved how the author phrased some of them and how annoying situations were reframed to have some positive aspect.

“Dear Restraint,

Thank you for allowing me to refrain from asking questions I don’t need to know the answers to, like “do you love her?”

Best, Leah”

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“Dear Morning Bathroom Visit,

Thank you for making room for breakfast.

All best, Leah”

 

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

the-faraway-nearby

There was so much to this book– though it’s not long– that it’s hard to summarize: it’s about Solnit’s difficult relationship with her jealous and psychologically-trapped mother and how it becomes easier as the mother goes through the stages of Alzheimer’s towards death; it’s about the power of stories and the various ways we can interpret the facets of our lives and weave them into the stories we tell; it’s about light and darkness and change and loss and acceptance. It was beautiful to get wrapped up in the labyrinthine writing. I felt more expansive reading this book.

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.”

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“Maybe the word forgive points in the wrong direction, since it’s something you mostly give yourself, not anyone else: you put down the ugly weight of old suffering, untie yourself from the awful, and walk away from it.”

 

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

the-art-of-asking

I already wrote a post on this one, but it’s going on the list anyway. I love how well Palmer connected the various threads of her life– her job as a living statue in Harvard Square, relying on friends and fans for help in every way, her marriage, her mentor Anthony’s sickness, trolls– under the themes of asking, trust, connection, and empathy. She seems like such a genuine, chaotic human, and I believe her when she writes about the love she feels for her fans (and people in general). This was such a heartfelt, occasionally heart-heavy book. I loved it.

“And another local journalist wrote an op-ed wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far. Wondering if this trend of empathy had gone too far? To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the possibility of understanding. To erase the possibility of empathy is also to erase the possibility of art. Theater, fiction, horror stories, love stories. This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped in darkness.”

 

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

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A collection of really short stories (including letters to organizations, dreams, and pieces inspired by the letters of Gustave Flaubert), they were both entertaining and perfect snippets of life. I loved how succinctly something could be said and still tell such a full story (sometimes just in two lines). 

“Her Geography: Illinois

She knows she is in Chicago. But she does not yet realize that she is in Illinois.”

 

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

incarnadine

A lovely collection of poems that made me think about how I could experiment with my own poetry more. I loved Szybist’s wording, the way she transitioned so seamlessly between the spiritual and the carnal. Stunning and incandescent. I will definitely be re-reading these.

There were so many things I wanted to tell you

Or rather,

I wished to have things that I wanted to tell you.

What a thing, to be with you and have

no words for it. What a thing,

To be outcast like that.”

[from Long after the Desert and Donkey]

 

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

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Another comic drama about Bechdel’s life (as a sort of prequel to Fun Home), this one is about her relationship to her mother (as opposed to her father, which is the basis of Fun Home). I am always blown away by how layered her storytelling is– how it can bounce back and forth while maintaining a coherent story and a relevant thread of literature to tie it all together. The specificity of her life is what makes her story so relatable. She is so good.

“But I am not ultimately interested in writing fiction. I can’t make things up. Or rather, I can only make things up about things that have already happened.”

 

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

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A journal of her son Sam’s first year, it brought me back to my first foster parenting days of feeding the babies and watching with love and awe as they grew while feeling lonely and exhausted all at once. It was also terribly sad when she found out her lifelong best friend was diagnosed with cancer. But Anne Lamott writes about everything with grace and humor. 

“I naively believe that self-love is 80 percent of the solution, that it helps beyond words to take yourself through the day as you would your most beloved mental patient relative, with great humor and lots of small treats.”

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“Actually, backwards is just as rich as forward if you can appreciate the circle instead of the direction.”

 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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A paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering book about mass incarceration in the U.S., its racial roots, and how it has created a racial undercaste. It was somewhat dry, but it is nevertheless so essential. We need a revolution here– I have no doubt about that. Every politician (and citizen, for that matter) should read this book. We need the change Alexander is calling for desperately. (And the fact that she ends the book with a long quote  by James Baldwin only strengthens my stance.)

“The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial difference.”

 

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

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A collection of poems that range from the author’s brother and his meth addiction to her lovers to life on a Native American reservation. They were stunning– heartbreaking and lovely and so easy to get absorbed in. The stories they told and images they conjured (like the one about why she doesn’t ask her brother about flowers) were captivating. 

“Angels don’t come to the reservation.

Bats, maybe, or owls, boxy mottled things.

Coyotes, too. They all mean the same thing—

death. And death

eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel

fly through this valley ever.

Gabriel? Never heard of him. Know a guy named Gabe though—

he came through here one powwow and stayed, typical

Indian. Sure he had wings,

jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. Wherever he stops,

kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.

Like I said, no Indian I’ve ever heard of has ever been or seen an angel.”

 

Mr. West by Sarah Blake

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I borrowed this from the library, but I want to keep it as my own. These poems about and for Kanye West that coincide with the author’s pregnancy are amazing– they touch on privilege and racism and Internet trolling and motherhood, and some had me in tears on the train. They make me want to root for Kanye (as the poet does), to miss his mother and long for her presence again in the world. This book is beautiful.

“Recently, Kanye compared himself to Emmett Till again.

On one website, they explain: ‘discussing the VMA incident… he compared the backlash he faced to the murder of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was killed for whistling as a white woman in Money, Mississippi.’

People have been outraged, but Kanye must

feel a connection to this boy. And because of Kanye,

Emmett’s story is on the internet again and again, 65 years later.

Kanye knows what appropriation is.”

[from In Song]

 

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

when-you-are-engulfed-in-flames

This collection of essays from Sedaris’ life was just as hilarious as the others I’ve read. (Naked belongs on this list, as well.) From sneezing a throat lozenge onto the crotch of his airplane seatmate (with whom he had gotten into a fight before she went to sleep) to quitting smoking while learning Japanese in Japan, his stories are so perfect in their self-deprecating, how-could-this-happen way. He is by far one of my favorite authors.

“Like most seasoned phonies, I roundly suspect that everyone is as disingenuous as I am.”

 

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

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I had been putting off reading this because I read an Amazon review that described it as basically the same as Daring Greatly, only in a different order and less organized. But that is so far from the truth it makes me mad. This book is wonderful– it is about the process of failing, uncovering the stories we make up, getting curious about our emotions, and then integrating what we learn into our lives. It felt so much like what I do while also unearthing some hurt and shame I’ve been carrying. I cried. I journaled. I think everyone should read this. We would all be so much better– our relationships would improve so much if we put in the effort.

“I believe that what we regret most are our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up, to say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves. For that reason, regret can be the birthplace of empathy. … Regret is what taught me that living outside my values is not tenable for me. Regrets about not taking chances have made me braver. Regrets about shaming or blaming people I care about have made me more thoughtful. Sometimes the most uncomfortable learning is the most powerful.”

 

You and Yours by Naomi Shihab Nye

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A beautiful collection of poems that ranges from gardens and airports to the injustice of war. I love how Nye always brings the focus back to humanity, to pointing out what governments and media have chosen to overlook. So sad, so hopeful, so wonderful.

“Suicide bombers, those tragic people driven insane by oppression, do not come out of vacuums. … Why is this almost never considered in the news? Sometimes where everything comes from is just as critical as where everything is going.”

 

The day Aunt Juni died

I had stayed home from work, ready for the news that was to come before I’d eat my breakfast. The weather was grey and rainy all day, as if it knew to dress for mourning; it seemed to be crying the tears that weren’t coming out of me. Immediately, pictures were being posted and family members were tagged, honoring the life Juni lived and displaying our grief so others would see it. And for some reason, I posted a picture of a Polish church instead of Juni, not mentioning her life or her death anywhere except in private texts to my siblings.

I spent time journaling about Juni that evening, remembering her personality and my connection to her, about how I’d sat in her hospital room for the week of my spring break the year she had her aneurysm, about how she used to grab my butt and talk about my figure before I even had a figure to talk about, about how she texted me to ask for pictures of all of my tattoos after I sent her a text to let her know I loved her toward the end of her life, when she was in the hospital yet again for something having to do with her stage IV cancer. She spent a lot of time in our house while we were we growing up because she was my mom’s best friend. I knew her as my aunt and knew that her presence was a source of support to my mom in a way their five brothers weren’t really. I knew that they had a special connection and that that connection involved goofy skits and loud laughter and a lot of things I didn’t know.

So the day she died, I didn’t feel it was my right to feel sad. It felt too self-indulgent, as if I was bringing the spotlight on myself when it should remain on Juni and those closest to her: her husband, her sister (my mom), her kids and grandkids, her brothers. What right did I have to grieve? I could be there for the others, but I couldn’t dismiss their pain by bringing attention to my own. It just wasn’t my place.

Yet even as I was feeling this way, I was thinking about the ridiculousness of it. Of course everyone can grieve in his/her own way. Everyone should mourn the loss of any life, not just of those they know but those they will never know, too. I know that I have the right to grieve for my own aunt, but I just didn’t feel like I did. (The irony of making it about me while claiming I don’t want to make it about me is not lost on me. I’m sad, and now I’m bringing attention to it. What a hypocrite.)

I think that it’s easy to ignore sadness and, through some bizarre alchemy, use it as fuel for anger or motivation to get things done or numbness even. I try not to do this in my life, but the day Juni died is proof that I do it nonetheless. I want to be there for those who are deep in their grief, but I’m afraid that as long as I’m afraid of my own, I will be afraid of theirs; that when I’m in the middle of such raw and open hurt, I will just want to run away.

But what I think will really happen is that their grief will touch my own in a way my isolated life hasn’t allowed yet. When I am surrounded by my kin, these people who loved Juni fiercely and who are unafraid to show it by how deeply they are grieving–just like she so openly loved and grieved– I will no longer be able to separate myself from my own sadness, and instead of running, I will be there alongside the rest of them under the heaviness of it all.

Her service is tomorrow. My brother and I are going to Southern Illinois tonight. The feelings ball will get rolling soon. But right now, I’m sitting on my bed, writing about how I’ve felt these past couple of days. I wish this post had been less about me and more about my aunt. She was really something. She liked what she liked without worrying about anyone else’s opinion; she was loud and eccentric; she loved laughing. She was a wonderful, caring woman. I am only her niece. But I know she loved me, just as everyone whom she’s ever loved knows it. And I loved her, though that is often much harder for outsiders to discern. So no matter how I may act or what I may feel I’m worthy of, I do know this: I was lucky to have an aunt like Juni. There is no one like her.

My grandmother’s jewelry

I’m wearing a forest green, vintage-style dress, and I feel lovely. I may not actually look as lovely as I feel, but I’ve learned that the feeling does wonders for the look. There’s a fist-sized yet faint scorch mark in the middle of the front of this dress, where I tried to iron for a second and then realized I shouldn’t have the night before I wore it for the first time, but I tell myself it adds character to the dress and makes it look even more vintage. I like the shape of the dress and the fact that the green somehow brings out the green of my eyes. I put a little blush on my cheeks, and I look in the mirror and see beauty.

To top it all off, I gird myself with my usual armor: earrings and bracelets and rings from women in my family. When I say ‘women,’ I really only mean my Granny—my dad’s mother—and Patty K—my Granny’s niece (also known as my dad’s cousin). Patty K and my Granny were close—in age, it always seemed to me, but also in taste.

Because Patty K lived in D.C. while I was growing up, I only met her a handful of times before I was in college. When I got to college—which was the community college and then the university near my grandparents—I lived in an apartment in the building my grandparents owned. Shortly after I moved in, Patty K moved into an apartment below me. Her husband had recently died, and she wasn’t in much of a condition to care for herself, at least not without family around. It turned out that my Granny was really the only family she had. So Patty K and I became neighbors.

Patty K had a way of studying me, in a not-so-dissimilar way that older people tend to study younger people who ‘remind them of themselves at that age.’ She would claim I had the flawless skin of my Granny or a gorgeous figure or interesting style. She took to leaving me little gifts outside of my apartment door, sometimes with notes, sometimes just there for me to find. I would occasionally receive late-night phone calls from her: slurred speech, punctuated by tears, telling me about how gifted I was. I was always a quiet, submissive kid, so in a way I enjoyed this admiration, even if it came from my second cousin with an alcohol problem and agoraphobia.

One Christmas—one of the few times she didn’t come up with an excuse not to leave her house—Patty K brought a bag full of jewelry that she spilled on a bed in the back of my Granny’s house and told the four of us—my two sisters, brother, and me—to pick out two pieces each. I have a hard time believing my brother found anything, but my difficulty was that I couldn’t narrow my choices down to just two. While I was trying to decide, Patty K was pushing one particular piece on me, a piece she thought was made just for me and that of course I ended up choosing, because when someone says something like that, how can you say no? The piece was one I wanted anyway: a gold ring shaped like a leaf on a flower with the sharp point sticking out and a pearl set into some black substance. (I wish I knew the more technical terms for the shape of the ring and the ‘black substance’ in it, but I don’t. I just liked how it looks.) One of her husbands had had it made for her, and it was now my inheritance.

On occasion, my Granny—who is still alive and well—will similarly take me to one of her jewelry stashes and give me some bracelets. She will tell me which pieces I will inherit when she dies, sometimes as she’s wearing one of them, and when I lived in their apartment building, she would bring a bracelet for me when we’d go out to dinner. My most worn jewelry is from my Granny and Patty K: rare, exquisite pieces that never go out of style. They are unobtrusively graceful, and they go well with everything. That may be part of the affinity we three shared for each other, a sense of style that started decades before I was alive and will outlast us all.

There are days where I feel nervous or uncomfortable about leaving the house—whether out of particular anxiety for what I will have to face at work that day or just out of a general uneasiness for how people will react to what I’m wearing—and on those days, I am more deliberate in my choice of jewelry. I always choose a ring or a bracelet or even earrings that Patty K or my Granny gave me and put them on as talismans of strength—strength I summon through the generations of women who have worn them. They serve as my protection, a bolstering of my spirit that gives me access to the support these two women have always given me. I feel their unique spirits, however briefly, and know that I can face whatever awaits me. Others may not be able to see, but I have a force field around me—even if, were it to become visible, it is the shape of two older women holding my hands.

So today, with my vintage-style dress, I am wearing that gold pearl ring from Patty K, as well as a gold bracelet with black stones in it and black stone earrings from my Granny. I want to embody the style we three adore, one that could fit in as easily in the 1950s as today. But because of how lovely I feel, today was not a strength-summoning girding. Today is an homage: to the style, timelessness, and elegance of the two women in my family who shaped my own style most intimately– and to the inner confidence that their seeing me as one of them imbued.

On Twinsters and dreams

The other day, I watched the documentary Twinsters on Netflix. It’s about two Korean adoptees who were separated at birth and had no idea they were twins. All their paperwork from Korea omits that fact, and even their foster parents in Korea had no idea. One was adopted by an American family with two older brothers (biological sons of the adoptive parents), and one was adopted by a childless couple in France. They found each other (unintentionally) with the help of YouTube and Facebook, and then they became like normal twins, with their own language and way of being together. It was sweet and had no agenda for or against international adoption (allowing me to keep my stance and still like the movie).

But the end got a bit heavier and hit me to the core: the twins traveled to Korea for a Korean Adoptee Conference, and during their trip they met the women who had fostered them when they were infants before they were adopted. The twin from the States had met hers the previous year, but it was the first time for the French one to meet hers. The impact it made on her was profound: she had been raised as an only child and felt that she only started existing the day she was adopted, that no one loved her or even cared whether she existed before then. Having now met her foster mom she suddenly realized that she did exist before and that people did love her and want her in the world. She was crying, and I was crying.

She said exactly what I used to say when I explained what I did as a foster parent (in my head, at least, back when I was doing it): that I was an unknown, never-to-be-remembered-yet-essential part of the babies’ lives and that no matter who loved them after me and whom they would credit with their lives, I was filling that small portion with love and care; it’s just that they would never know it. So for the girl to recognize it, it was as if she was recognizing me and what I had done for babies like her. It was what I would want them all to realize, that there was never a point in their lives when they weren’t known and loved.

Yet the very night I describe all this to my little sister and boyfriend, I have a dream about the little girl I fostered who felt most like a daughter to me, the one I tattooed in the form of an elephant onto my side. In this dream, I was her caregiver again. We played in a living room, and she had some words that she could say now. We were tentative, re-acquainting ourselves, but my love was just as strong. I adored her. I ate something and went to sleep and woke up a little while later, realizing I had someone else to take care of and that I hadn’t fed her or put her to bed. I walked down the stairs, my heart in my stomach, and I saw toys and trash strewn around, as if a two-year-old had been left to her own devices and what was left was evidence of my negligence. I heard her crying and went into the messy living room to find her lying on the floor amidst all the junk in her own pee. Her diaper was beyond full, and she was so exhausted but so uncomfortable with hunger and piss that she hadn’t been able to fall asleep. I knew then that I would never be forgiven, and I picked her up to hug her, holding her close to me. I changed her and put her down to sleep, but she couldn’t sleep in her crib, either. So I just decided to hold her in my arms and walk around until she did fall asleep. She had gone quiet by the time the sun came up.

I still can’t shake the sickening guilt.

There is an inextricable link between my feeling like what I did as a foster parent was of incalculable importance and feeling like I failed in truly living up to that. It doesn’t matter how it evens out logically. It is just something that’s there, inside, leaving me raw whenever it’s touched.

I guess this is where I could write about what it all means, what exactly I feel and the root of all this sadness. Maybe it’s just too personal for me to do that, or maybe it sits too closely to the nerve that causes such pain and leaves me so drained. What I can say is that the most meaningful experiences of my life have never been easy to describe or categorize. I know foster parenting certainly isn’t. But rarely has someone put it into such resonant terms as the adoptee in the film, and rarely have I felt so affirmed. I may have unresolved emotions, but that is only because life, as long as we are living it, will continually and frustratingly be unresolved as it unfolds. I don’t have closure, so I have dreams. I’m just grateful to realize that I will occasionally have more than that.