questions that don’t need answers: on the what’s next of it all

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"Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward to whatever crazy beauty awaits. You don't have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don't have to justify your education by its financial rewards. You don't have to maintain an impeccable credit score. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you've got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that's all." -- Cheryl Strayed, Tint Beautiful Things

Back in 2011, when I was a college kid losing myself in the black vortex of untreated mental illness, I told everyone who would listen what I was struggling with. Anxiety, depression, daily panic attacks, Zoloft to treat it. I had known so few people to have mental health conditions, and the few people of with conditions, I only knew about through backroom whispers. It was foolish of me, but I thought what I was going through was so unique. No one else I knew was frightened by meeting friends for a movie! No one else I knew had their chest go tight and their vision blurry and their stomach sour three, four times a day! No one was irritable like I was, sad like I was, unnamably hopeless like I was.

Of course, that wasn’t true, but I didn’t know people who had - or at least who talked about having - any mental health conditions. There were some backroom whispers about tiny pills swallowed daily, but nothing or no one that said to me ‘mental illness is real, is common, is treatable.’ As the number of people who told me “I experienced the same thing” mounted, I wanted to shout why didn’t anyone tell me?

Why didn’t anyone tell me that this blackness has already been charted?

After writing last week about my depression, I was overwhelmed and grateful, as I always, always am, at the number of people who reached out to say that they got it. My god, people, life gets so lovely when we all stop hiding what’s supposed to make us lonely.

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I’m also really happy to report that this week was better than last. After historic snowfall over the weekend, winter seems to finally be breaking. The sun has shined every day, and I finally ditched my down jacket. I read a sharp, intimate, breathtaking book, wrote two short stories back to back in a voice I barely recognize, and got really excited about bullet journaling. Then, on the one low day of the week, when I raged about stress and cried at the DMV, my sweet, sweet boyfriend reminded me that it’s okay to not always be okay. Like they say, a day at a time.

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These last twelve months have been momentous and beautiful, and have given me the opportunity to, above all else, ask myself, to pull from Mary Oliver, what it is I want from this one wild and precious life.

I’m twenty five, and this seems like a good age to ask big questions. Or maybe every age is as good as any other, and I am ready now. What do I want out of life? Not just out of my days, but the whole grand sweep of it. What do I want it to have been when it comes to an end? How do I give my heart to someone, and what do I do when they give me theirs? What is purpose, and how do I find mine? What’s a career path, and how I build mine? How do I tend my roots without sacrificing my growth? What does desert feel like when you life in?

What comes next, and how do you decide when next comes? How do we even make that decision? Or do we just wait until there’s not decision left to make?

I think, again of that question Elizabeth Gilbert asks: who are you going to blame your life on today? Who get to be in charge of me today? And when will I learn to give myself permission to let that person be me?

Even when I can provide an answer, they only breed more questions. Like fruit I’m plucking from a tree, new ones ripen every day.

I know a few things for certain. That I must write. That I must love someone deeply and let them love me deeply too.

For a long time, I was a girl with no windows. No way for the light to get in. Then I torched my tiny room, and watched it burn. Unanswered questions thrill me. I’m young, and I’m curious, and I’m just the right amount of broke to be neither optionless nor tethered. It's a miracle. That's what I keep thinking: it's a goddamn miracle to be here.

So what do you do? How do you build a wild, curious, thoughtful life? How do you love yourself and love your loved ones and love this world well? How do you keep these questions from becoming boxes that require answers, and allow them to be a journey in themselves?

everything you’ve been feeling? yeah, that’s depression

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Late last week, after an episode of television left me unreasonably shattered, I remembered: This is what depression feels like. (How did I forget?)I’ve experienced three major depressive episodes in my life. Darknesses so unnavigable I thought I’d never be a whole person again. But depression doesn’t usually come for me like this. It’s more likely to come in mild, stubborn waves. Instead of night that won’t end, it’s like clouds that refuse to part.

When I’m back under the clouds, I can’t understand how I ever forget that this is what depression feels like, but I always do. Maybe it’s a stubborn leftover from childhood, that hope that, once they come, sunny days will never leave.

But as steady as the sun comes, so do the clouds, and all my hallmarks signs of depression are back -- and have been for several weeks. Brain fog, poor concentration, fast tears, a blue undertone, worries that seem unsolvable, a general sense that it’s all too much to bear.

It’s taken me three days to write these measly 800 or so words, because my brain feels both empty and waterlogged. This too reminds me I’m depressed. Accessinglanguageis usuallythemostnaturalthingI do. Maybe that’s why depression (even more so than anxiety) feels frightening -- it cuts me off from the very act that heals me.

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I like growing up, though, because I’m getting better at my life. Right now, I’m getting better at accepting that I can’t “fix” my way out of depression. Exercise or yoga or meditation or reading a good book -- all these things help soothe me, but they’re not “cures” for depression, despite what the internet tells you. All I can do when I’m here is hang on. To myself and to the resources I have, and I wait for the days to get better. (And they always, always have).

This is a mild and functional depression, and some days are easier than others. Some days are even easy. Tuesday was an easy day -- cheerful, productive, bright. I fell asleep at ease. Wednesday was not, though. My brain was a wide blank desert, and every time I tried to dial in to my work, my blankness intimidated me and left me in tears. I wanted to crawl back to bed, and hide from the light.

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I’ve been on hiatus from my blog, because work and life crowded out the time I usually set aside to write, and I didn’t do a good job of creating time elsewhere. I once listened to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she said that when she wakes up in a bad mood, she asks herself: “Who are you going to blame your life no today? I was quiet here for several months last year, and returned in the fall to kickstart my creativity and retrain my writing muscle. Another month and a half of radio silence is good proof that I derail my own goals better than anyone else can.

Although, I hate the language of goals. Especially when I’m in my depression, I’m reminded that our resources are limited, and sometimes, you just can’t do everything you want to. Self discipline and commitment and “crushing it” all have their place in forward motion, but “no excuses” and “hustle harder” is just so antithetical how life actually rolls. I want to finish a draft of my novel by April 30. I told myself I’d write six days a week to do that. Last week, I opened my notes every day, and didn’t write a single word.

All that being said, I want to get back into a regular habit of writing here once a week. I like the space it gives me to think, and I like the small platform it gives me to connect with the people who share in my struggles and triumphs and questions and curiosities. That, more than anything else, heals me.

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Reading Lately: The Woman in Cabin 10 + What Alice Forgot. After eschewing the novel in favor of essays for a year or so, I’m back to my roots. These last two novels I read are both highly marketed, highly marketable “commercial novels,” and while I dislike the snobbery of “literary fiction,” I see the difference when I read novels like these. These two novels are page turners/page burners. I’m not keeping either now that I’ve finished (I keep only books I really love and plan to return to), but losing myself in their stories reminded me of why I love books.

Watching Lately: Big Little Lies + Criminal Minds. I’ve been rewatching Big Little Lies (but only while I workout, because #motivation), and this show is so nuanced and complex. My boyfriend and I are also deep into Criminal Minds. We play this fun game during the credits where I shout out all the mug shots I recognize, and he buries his head underneath the couch cushions. (I didn’t say who it was fun for…). As much as I joke about loving creepy crime stuff, there’s something particularly fascinating about the gender dynamics at play in the true crime world. Women know -- and we have this knowledge reinforced daily -- that we are vulnerable to crime in ways that men are not. Our bodies and our lives only remain our own insofar as we are aware of how quickly they can be taken from us. Again, with the jokes, but I think women feel a little bit better when we know all the different ways we could be killed.

Working on Lately: Being kinder to myself. I’m not talking self-care or “treat yo self,” but rather about the way I talk to myself. I shared on Instagram this week the negative comments I made to myself about my appearance. I try to approach the world with grace and care, but when I think about how I approach myself, it’s all sharp edges and hard lines. Of course you’re lazy. Of course you’re not pretty enough. Of course you don’t deserve that. It’s exhausting to live under such a barrage, and yet I choose to do it to myself! Why? I’m the one that gets to decide how I treat myself. Why do I choose to be so mean?

how did we wind up with so much stuff?

I never thought much about the stuff I owned until I needed it haul it across my city half a dozen times last summer.

I have so much of it. So much clothing. So much kitchen gear. So much hand soap. (Why I own so much hand soap is beyond me). So many books (but we’re not touching those, ok?). At one point this summer, I sat on a sidewalk, ringed in boxes and furniture, and I cried, because why do I have so much stuff to haul up and down so many staircases?

There’s very little psychology behind what I own or why I own them (except perhaps my books, but again, untouchable. Let them be fat in peace). I own as much as I do, because of circumstance: For a few years, I lived in one place, and had the luxury of being still long enough for stuff to accumulate in corners. My village, the friends and family who love me, have been generous with what they own, and I’ve become the (grateful) recipient of many items they’re removing from their home. This past summer, I rebuilt my wardrobe, giving myself permission to buy clothing that fit and flattered my body. For many years, I largely only wore second-hand or clearance clothing that only sometimes fit me, only sometimes made me feel confident.

There’s little to no pathology behind why I own what I do, buy oh my god, why do I own so much?

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I think often about the kind of life I’m building. That’s what this whole space is dedicated to: the process of becoming who we’re meant to be. What I don’t want is for my belongings to overtake me. I want my collection of items to be slim and agile. Utilitarian and well-loved and appropriate for small apartments. (Except! For! The! Books!).

Since my move this summer, I’ve been slimming down what I keep. Kitchen gadgets that only do one thing, clothing that doesn’t fit, decorations aren’t sentimental or don’t serve a purpose. All into bags to be given away. I was jubilant one day when I opened a drawer in my kitchen and found it empty, even though all my dishes were clean.

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This all goes back to my desire to cut back, to reduce. To cut back on all the noise. All the commotion. Everything that demands my attention.

I want to travel.

I want to write.

I want to build relationships where I am known and I know them.

I don’t want my time, or my attention, or my money monopolized by gadgets or trinkets. Do you ever think about how much time you spend attending to your stuff? Cleaning it, sorting it, dusting it, arranging it?

What donation bags of clothing has to do with my desire for deep friendship, or the tentative ways I’m returning to (and trying to finish) my first novel, I’m not sure. But they seem connected. I invited people in to my home a few weeks ago, and I glowed with all the commotion, all the happy conversation. So few people have been to my apartment, so few friends have visited me.

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I’ll move again this summer, and when I do, I don’t want to haul dresses I bought when I was a different person. I don’t want to pack souvenirs collected in places I can’t remember.

On the morning after I moved in to my apartment, I fell in love with the light. It was clean and bright, and it spilled into my empty apartment like an invitation. Like something essential. I keep thinking about that morning. How I had seven books, and my laptop, one pocket sized notebook, and a coffee maker. How everything else I owned was somewhere else. How even though I’d gone to sleep lonely and a little bit frightened, I woke in a room suffused with light.

how you get through the hard days

 Urban Bean, Minneapolis

Urban Bean, Minneapolis

"As though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light where they seemed so misshapen and helpless. Oh, isn't that why shadows get longer and longer in the evening? They are reaching out for the night, this tidal wave of darkness that washes over the earth to fulfill for a few hours the shadows' innermost longings." Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Boyhood

I’m exhausted. Do you ever have weeks like that? Where each day feels, for no good reason, like a desert to cross?

We’re short on daylight, but really long on daytime.

February’s always been a hard month. Seven years ago, I was two weeks into the spring semester, and I begged my date to drive me to my parent’s house. I couldn’t return. A week later, I’d misread a bus schedule, and be deposited into a then-unfamiliar downtown. I’d cry on the transit station’s teal carpet, and call my mom, my dad and a doctor. I’d cry for three days straight.

I’ve had dark days, but none as dark as those. What I remember from my seasons of depression are that the days feel impossible, and there is no reason other than they are. Maybe my body is remember what my mind tries not to. Maybe a week of for-no-good-reason long days is my body’s way of reminding me that it’s okay to have days that aren’t okay.

The funny thing about being happy after being unhappy for so long is that you start to become afraid of the joy. Like it might run out. Like maybe you’ve only been given a short period of bright before you return to darkness. When the days stretch, and I get grumpy, and I want anesthesia for the waking hours, I get scared that maybe this has all just been a grace period. Maybe I’ll go back to being lonely and weak and tired and sad and scared. Maybe that’s who I actually am.

I know this isn’t true, but how often does fear care about truth?

I know I’m not returning to that black country. I sometimes wonder if I ever will. Right now, that depression feels like a house for which I’ve lost the keys. I can’t get in anymore.

Even on hard days, the joy of my life, the gratitude for it outstrips the undertow. My feet, as my grandpa always said, point towards the sunny side of street. A few hard days don’t make a depression, or even a dip, but they do remind me that joy is deeper than happiness. That happiness is good, but always fickle. That it’s okay to not always be megawatt.

Guys. We’re human. We’re not designed to live only in the light.

We live in an age where happiness is hocked. It’s a commodity we can buy, a challenge we can accept, a level we can unlock, a hack we can perform. I don’t want to hack my way into eternal sunshine. I don’t want to close-circuit myself to the range, to the all of it all. I like the symphony, the range of notes, the swell and the fade. Some days are hard because they are. Some days aren’t, and that is okay too.

How do you get through the hard days? You just do.

Light comes as steady as the dark.

rome + sardinia in photographs

This past summer, I went to Italy. My mother, whose long loved the country, took me, the gift of experience.

I went to Italy with my dad's family when I was eight. We spent a full month touring the country -- Sicily, where my grandmother's family is from, Rome, Florence, Venice, Sirmione and Sorrento. My memories of that trip are children's memories: Playing games with my cousins in Rome, pulling away from the sick dogs in train stations and on the streets of Naples, begging for gelato, lemon and strawberry, everyday, multiple times a day, watching my brother fly across a hotel room on a bed that hadn't been secured to the floor.

I tossed a coin, still lira in 2001, into the Trevi Fountain at dusk, and refused to tell my family that I wished for my writing to be publishedMount Etna experienced a "flank eruption" in July 2001, and I watched BBC news reports of rolling lava and crying women: We'd been there a month earlier, heard the mountain rumbling, and even though the sky was clear, I remember my cousins and I deciding we were hearing thunder from a storm we couldn't see. When we visited Sorrento, we swam in the ocean, the water a jewel tone that even the beaches of Sicily couldn't rival. My memory is that the beach was rocky, but the ocean floor was covered in shattered pottery. We sliced our feet on ceramic edges, and dove to the bottom to retrieve the bright, broken pieces. This can't possibly be right, but, like I said, they're all the memories of a child. I saw at my eye level, filtered what I saw through eight, short years, and so much of that trip has either fallen away or has taken on a kind of magic-glaze.

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This past summer's trip to Italy was as much a reprisal of the 2001 trip as it was its own, new experience. My mom has visited Italy several times, and is familiar with Rome, in particular. As we prepared for the trip, she told me over and over again that she just wanted me to see the country that she had fallen in love with.

I've been wanting to, and trying to, write about this trip for several months, but I can't quite unlock my experiences. For a myriad of reasons, the trip was as emotional and difficult as it was awe-inspiring. I found myself reckoning with a fragility within myself. I cried in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere over decisions that now feel like mistakes. I flew home with hives covering my hands and feet.

It took several months for the trip to mellow into what it is for me now: a new door opening inside of me. It was an invigorating two weeks, a thoughtful and, at times, painful two weeks, and while I was ready to come home at the end of it, I think I was so ready to come home, in part, because I was so excited about the life I had back here. Back home, I felt both new and old all at once. The girl I'd once been dusted off, and returned to where she belonged. I'm not sure I was ready to travel quite yet. Not sure I was ready to learn who I was in a foreign country while I was still so thrilled to be where I was at home.

For all it was, this trip was, above all, beautiful and breathtaking. Italy is. My mother's kindness and generosity and excitement to show me the country she loves so much was (is) beautiful and breathtaking. Photos don't do any of it justice, and while I'm not sure my words will either, I do hope to write more about this trip, once I've had even more time to let it settle.

thoughts on abundance versus reduction + what we create space for

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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about reduction over the last few months. Reducing my spending, reducing my possessions, reducing my stress, reducing my clutter, (I want to say reducing my waistline too, but I’m working on self-compassion over here). The cleanness of January--new year, fewer plans, clear, winter light--makes me want to cut down, cut back.

On Monday, I lay awake in bed thinking about writing. I’m reading Karl Ove Knausgaard, and thus far, he hasn’t written much about his writing, but the act of writing is a constant specter in the books. The joy of language (“These two places alone, which I could not believe I had written...are two of the best moments in my life. By which I mean by whole life.”), the industry of publishing, the slog of working on it, the anxiety of not writing at all.

I’ve written very little this past year. I did publish short story in a small journal in June (cue the trumpets!), and have written reflectively both in my journal and in this space, but as far as creating, pulling new stories out of the nascent fog, shaping those narratives into something readable, something publishable--I’ve only “done” three longhand pages of that kind of writing in the past seven months. Despite having written so little, I still feel writing on me the way I always have. I still shutter beautiful moments, listen for cadence as people speak, note the phrases strangers use as they cross me on the sidewalk. On Monday, I thought about how hard it is to create something new (even if it’s just for yourself), and then I remembered that I’ve done this again and again and again. Creating is hard, but it’s also as natural as breathing.

What will occupy the space I’m creating with all my reducing?

I wrote about this feeling last week: That I want 2018 to be an abundant year. It strikes me, lover of words that I am, that the two words that have been rising to the surface now are at odds with one another. Abundance and reduction.

But then I think about the two areas of my life where excesses can be most visible: my spending habits and my book collection. I’ve been diligent these past weeks at tracking my spending, and weighing my purchases, and while I’ve said no to what I haven’t needed, I’ve genuinely enjoyed spending each dollar I’ve spent this month. A Saturday night with friends, a haul of fresh, adventurous foods we turned into meals on a long, snowy weekend, sipping the “world’s best chai latte” in a warm parlor on a cold, cold night. Cutting back to make room for more.

Same goes with my book collection. Reading My Struggle, which is so compelling and wise and asks questions of me that I haven’t know to ask, has me thinking, yet again, about which books I keep and which I pass along. I have a tremendous amount of books, many of which I haven’t read yet, and while you wouldn’t guess it looking at my four full bookcases, I edit my collection frequently. I won’t keep a book unless I loved it, or unless it taught me something. The six volumes of My Struggle are the kind of books I will gladly haul with me from apartment to apartment, and from city to city. Books with this much life make me want to cut back on the volumes where the magic has dulled.

As is so often the case in my life (in all our lives?), I feel like I’m holding disparate things in one hand, and wondering what will be done with them. I want to write, but I don’t trust my words yet, or my ability to work with them. I want to foster abundance in my life, but right now, I’m taken with reduction. What is going to fill up all this space I’m creating?

I’m considering dedicating a month to a daily habit to try to create some forward motion for myself. Journaling, maybe, or mediating. I’m always interested in what happens when we commit ourselves to one thing. How can that one thing crack open the ten thousand?

I have all this joy right now, but also all this anticipation. The new year is arbitrary, I know, but the hope I have for it isn't.

what i want 2018 to be

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I planned to spend time at the end of 2017 reflecting on the coming year, and when the week before the new year disappeared into more important commitments, I planned to spend the first days of 2018 reflecting, and then, I spent the first week of the year sick. Best laid plans, right?

It’s funny that all my plans to plan failed, and that I’m now two weeks in, and, aside from a few conversations with friends, this is the first time I’m meditating on what I want from 2018. (A former version of myself would have harbored fears that I’d already wasted the year, because what’s a rebuilding of myself if I can’t mark its beginning and end on a calendar).

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Before Christmas, my Elise friend asked what I wanted in 2018. I told her I want to remain as happy as I am now. It was late, and I was tired and giggly; I didn’t just mean happy, because happy can temperamental. What I meant was more than happy: I want to remain as full as I am now.

2017 was a happy year, yes, but more than that it was a full year. I grew so much, experienced so much (both good and bad). I met new people, had new experiences, lived in new places. I traveled, read, drank, ate, swam in the ocean, dug my fingers in mud, laughed, cried, spent time alone, spent time surrounded. Last year was abundant. I, in 2017, felt abundant. It was the year people told me my face changed. They saw joy in my eyes, on my skin, in my body.

After drought, I was (am) a girl overflowing.

That’s what I want in 2018. I know that to say my “new year’s resolution” is to “have a full year” sounds like vague bullshit, but I don’t have a better way to describe it. My life is this beautiful, flowering, sometimes hard, sometimes soft thing that I want to love and nurture and grow. Now that I am more me -- more in tune with who I am, what I want, who I want to be -- I want to experience more and more of that fullness.

I don’t have checklists or plans, but rather I have directions in which I want to move. Areas of my life where I want to concentrate my energy, nurture life into.

- Cultivating friendship -

Oh, how many times has my heart broken over friends? I’ve always struggled with friendship. Even as a little kid, I didn’t make friends easily, and when I did finally, I rarely knew what to do with them. So much of the time, I still feel this way.

While 2017 lit up so much of life, it also did a number on my social sphere. For a complex set of reasons, I either lost touch with, intentionally distanced myself from or unintentionally lost intimacy with many of my friends. (Not all of them. The friends I’ve held on to are dear, shining, bright stars to me). I shed so many tears over friendships last year. I don’t often journal, but I had to last year, to understand what was happening to my friendships, and what those losses were doing to me. Through all that hot, lonely heartache, I finally got to a place where I decided that, while the “problem” didn’t necessarily lie solely with me, the solution would.

For all my longing for friendship, I’m not very good at the work that friendship requires. I’m content being alone, and I’m also deeply insecure about the bonds that I have. I assume my presence is a burden or inconvenience, and opt, instead, to not reach out or follow up. If I want strong friendships in my life, I have to first learn how to be a good, consistent friend. My primary experience of friendship has been one of starting over (new people, new groups, new circles who will accept and maybe love me), and even though I feel that again now, I’m trying to be hopeful. If I get better, maybe my friendships will too? I want 2018 to be a good year for friendship, to be the year that I learn how to be the kind of friend I want.

- Get my financial house in order -

Last year, I lost balance with my finances. I carried a balance on my credit card for the first time in my life (small, but nevertheless there), and I struggled to figure out exactly where my money was going compared to where it needed to be going. As 2017 came to a close, I began to clean up this general “messiness.” I can be lean and disciplined when I need to, and have created a budget that work well for my life and its rhythms. But as the new year starts, I’m thinking more broadly about money than just hitting targets on my spreadsheet. As with so much in my life, I want to be intentional about where my dollars go.

A lot of what I make goes towards expenses I don’t control -- rent that is a little too high, groceries that I keep having to buy, insurance that I’m goddamn lucky to have -- but when I think about the rest of my spending, I think in terms of addition. I want my spending to add to my life, enrich it, not detract from it. Sharing meals with friends, owning books that set me on fire, hopping neighborhood bars with my boyfriend -- these experiences, though they have a cost, bring me so joy. In 2018, I’m looking to minimize what I spend on the mindless stuff -- the stress shopping and impulse buying -- so that I can spend, without worry, on what fills me up, and save the rest.

Basically: don’t spend on what I don’t need, so I can focus on what I do.

- Travel -

This is so simple. I want to go everywhere. I want to see everything. There’s no one place I want to experience in 2018, but rather a thousand places I’d be excited to visit if I have the opportunity.

With the money goals that I also have, travel may not be as attainable as I’d like it to be. But while I want to work towards affording “real” travel, I also want to expand my definition of what it means to “travel.” Last July, I visited Lake Superior with my boyfriend. Even though I’ve experienced the lake a hundred times and in a hundred different ways, to experience it with someone who hasn’t was like experiencing it new again. I want to visit Toronto/ Stockholm/ Vienna/ Olympic National Park/ Los Angeles/ Boston/ London (literally, you name a place; I want to go to it), but if that kind of big-far-wide travel isn’t in the cards for 2018, I want to be equally thrilled to see and explore the bits of the world that I do get to.

- Get comfortable with vulnerability -

Sometime in my early adulthood, I trained myself to keep what’s true about myself locked up. I would either write it down, or I would only tell it to myself, but I stopped telling other people. It was a lot easier to stay quiet than it was to unzip myself and hope the person I was with would hear me and understand me and treat all my fragile spots with the kind of tender care they needed.

I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s lonely, and uncomfortable, and prevents me from learning safety, and it prevents my loved ones from learning about me. But, god, vulnerability is hard. I have visceral, physical reactions to situations that require it of me. The more opened up and raw I feel, or the more intimate the information I want to share, the harder it is to physically open my mouth, physically form words, physically breath through the intensity. I want this to change. Becoming more comfortable with vulnerability is a gift I can give to myself and to the people who love me. In 2018, I want to become softer with those people. I want to be known, and I want to let them know me.

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As I look over this little list, I realize that none of these “resolutions” are new to 2018. I’ve been working on financial health, on friendships, on vulnerability already. I’ve already had successes (and failures) in each of these realms. Dedicating 2018 to working on these intentions doesn’t signal a departure. There’s no “new Torrie” I’m aiming to create. Last year, I wrote that I hoped that even if the new year wasn’t better than the old, I, at least, would be better. Last year was, thank God, a much, much better year, a healing, happy, hopeful year, and I want 2018 to be a continuation of that. I want a year of more. I like being a growing person. I like knowing that I’m still getting there.

books i read in 2017

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I read this year for wisdom. I read less this year than I've read in years. I struggled to focus on the page for long periods of time. I started and abandoned at least a dozen books. I grew impatient with writers faster, and found myself avoiding male writers for the better half of the year. I bought books less frequently, and I quit carrying a book in my bag with me. I joked last night that I read so little this year, because I did so much living.While that's only about half-true, I do know that as I made changes to my life this year, I found myself less out of a need for escape, and more out of a need for awakening. Last January dawned black and lonely. I spent five months crawling towards the sun, and when I reached it, it was brilliant, blinding, and healing. Even though I read significantly less, I think I read better books, with more intention, and gained more from their pages than I have in previous years.

I'm leaving 2017 stronger, happier, and more at peace; these books helped shape me.

  • Elizabeth Berg's The Art of Mending: After talking about how rich my book diet was, it's a bummer to start my (alphabetized) list with this book, because it was not good. I remember thinking that this was one of the those books prolific writers crank out because they've got a deadline coming soon. The characters were weak and one-dimensional, and the plot half filled out.

  • Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins: I brought this (along with three Ferrante novels) to Italy this August, and read it in the first week of our trip. I loved it so much -- for its sweeping romanticism, for its multiple-narrator, multiple-timeline structure, for its unabashed adoration of Italy. I spent the first few months of summer eschewing novels and male writers, but Walter's novel convinced me to return to both.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me: Is there anything I could say about Ta-Nehisi Coates' elegy that hasn't already been said? It is required reading. It is a social history of the systems of race that built and sustain America, and a painful meditation of the personal experience of institutionalized violence. It is angry, and mournful, and unapologetic. This book is intensely personal, and as a white reader, it felt like a window with the shades pulled back. This book is two years old now. If you haven't read it yet, read it in 2018.

  • Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run: I began this book the day it was released in September 2017, but despite my deep, deep love for Bruce Springsteen, I couldn't get into it. I needed this book later. It took me two weeks to read the first 200 pages, and two days to read the next four hundred in two days. Born to Runwas extraordinary in ways I didn't expect it to be. Though he's not old and is still actively creating, Springsteen wrote like a man at the end of his life -- with grace and wisdom and posterity and understanding. He covers the range -- his difficult childhood, the hunger of a young artist, the persistent hold depression, creativity, marriage and divorce, fatherhood (and sonship), politics, death, money. I read this book, because I love Bruce Springsteen, but it's a powerful, painful, and ultimately hopeful meditation on a full life.

  • Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment: Ferrante is brilliant. Last year, I read all the Neapolitan novels, and told everyone that would listen that they should read them too. I'd give the same command about Days of Abandonment except this book is dark and disturbing in ways that even the Neapolitan novels weren't. It's a story of a woman's unraveling, in the hot summer after her husband leaves her and her children. Ferrante writes women with an unparalleled and horrific mastery. This is a novel of undoing, claustrophobic and disorienting and compelling. I read it on the beaches of Sardinia, and on a plane, over the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Phyllis A. Whitney's The Fire and the Gold: A good friend lent me this book in May -- her favorite book and one that she returns to repeatedly for comfort. Published in 1956 and set in 1906, this is a novel about a young woman, set on ending an engagement, but caught up in the chaos of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It's a short novel, but it's sweeping and grand and romantic. Although I didn't read much for escape this past year, this book was a perfect escape from a particularly high-stress week. (As a parenthetical, I love when people share with me the books they love. Maybe it's because I love books so much, but it's such an act of trust and intimacy.)

  • Felicia Sullivan's Follow Me into the Dark: This was easily one of the best books I read this year. Sullivan is a brilliant writer (I came to her writing via her now inactive blog), whose fiction is dark, but powerful. Follow Me into the Dark is about mothers and daughters, and women in varying stages of undoing. When explaining this novel (to everyone who would listen, because, people, this book must be read), I struggled to explain the plot without giving too much away, but I landed on some version of: It's a novel about inter-generational abuse, unchecked grief, and the trauma experienced by unloved children, told through the story of three siblings and the history of their family. Sullivan is a gorgeous writer whose words I would ink on my skin, but she's also a unflinchingly brave storyteller who is willing to bring readers, with little promise of escape, into the dark.

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  • Amy Schumer's The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo: I listened to this memoir on audiobook during a work trip that kept me in the car for about ten hours. I expected very little from it -- as a public figure, Schumerisproblematic and I've never connected with her brand of humor -- but my library offers little by way of audiobook, so I gave it a shot. I was surprised by how thoughtful this book ended up being. Most compelling were Schumer's reflections on the trauma she experienced in an abusive relationship, her father's multiple-sclerosis, and her experiences of body and love.

  • Gilian Flynn's Gone Girl: I realize I read this book about five years too late, but I was underwhelmed. Yes, I'd already seen the movie, and knew the twist, but usually, if a book is good enough, it doesn't matter to me if I know the plot or not. I thought Flynn's writing drew too much attention to itself, and the character development not as sophisticated as it was billed to be. I liked the movie better.

  • David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: I was wary of this book when it first came out, because do we really need more white men telling other people’s stories, but this book ended up impressing me. Grann tells the rigorously researched story of the widespread murder of Osage people during the early twentieth century for their wealth and oil rights. This book lagged in the middle, but Grann managed to tell this story with grace, pain, and respect.

  • Kevin Fenton's Leaving Rollingstone: I first read Fenton after attending a panel he was on in 2011. His novel, Merit Badges, is a melancholy ode to youth, friendship, and what we lose as we grow up. Maybe this is the central question of Fenton’s writing life, because Leaving Rollingstone was written from a similar vantage. He begins his life on the family farm in Southern Minnesota, and spends the rest of his adolescence and adulthood trying to find a way to return. Fenton writers like a man in process, not a man with results, and I found his memoir thoughtful, mournful, but ultimately hopeful.

  • Chris Bohjalian's The Light in the Ruins: One of the last books I read this year, and one of the most meh. Bohjalian is a prolific writer, but I’ve never read any of his novels. This one fell flat. The plot was compelling enough (dual timelines, set ten years apart: A serial killer is targeting a wealthy Italian family; Nazis are occupying the same family’s villa during the late years of the war), but it was about nothing more than what was on the page. Especially this year, I was reading for so much more than entertainment, and this barely was that.

  • Tana French's The Likeness: This book. I was wary about it, because I read French’s first detective novel, In the Woods, last year, and it’s plot was a disappointment. The Likeness begins with a less compelling mystery than In the Woods -- a young woman, who shares a striking resemblance with a murder detective, is found dead in an Irish farmhouse; the detective goes undercover as the dead girl to try to find out who killed her -- but read as a much better novel. Although French wraps up this mystery well, I think I would have still loved this novel, even if it has as disappointing ending as In the Woods. More so than this book is about murder or detectives or solutions, it’s a reflection on friendship, and connection, and the deeply human need to belong. Of all the things I gained and lost in this past year, I’ve struggled most with the sense that I’ve lost friends. My social circle has shrunk down to a very few, and I’ve felt intermittently hurt and lonely because of this. Maybe I loved this novel, because it asked what it means to belong at a very point in the year when I was asking myself the same question.

  • Glennon Doyle Melton's Love Warrior: For a long time, I avoided anything that too closely resembled “self-help,” because I didn’t believe that a real person (me) could live a life so unlocked.Love Warrior is much more memoir than self-help, but because Melton rose to fame through her self-help-realm blog and first book, it still has elements of direction. I listened to Melton’s memoir on audiobook early in the year, and I feel like I was able to only half-hear it. Possibly one of the most woo-woo things I believe is that books come to us at the right points in time (if we want them to), and this book came to me a bit too early. I’ve since listened to Melton talk about some of the same themes she discusses in her book -- rock bottom, vulnerability, trust and power, loneliness, and I want to read Love Warrior again. I wasn’t ready, at the time, to unlock.

  • Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower: If I’m being honest, I remember loving this book than I remember actually reading this book. It’s my now-boyfriend’s favorite book, and he recommended it to me in the first few weeks we’d been seeing each other. This book is slim, but I devoured it. (Handsome man borrows you his favorite book on the fourth date, that’s what you do). What I do remember about reading it was that this book seemed to hold every emotion a human being can feeling, and that, if there ever was one, is the perfect description of adolescence.

  • Carrie Fisher's The Princess Diarist: I think we expect more wisdom of people after they pass. I remember feeling this way about Fisher’s last memoir. This book was charming, and enjoyable, but in the weeks following her death, it was billed as some kind of deep dive into the heart and mind of a young woman on the brink of her life. It’s not that -- it’s a teenager’s diary, paired with enjoyable, gossipy essays about that period of her life. I did enjoy this book, but I think I expected revelation, when really, it’s a lot of reflection.

  • Ariel Levy's The Rules Do Not Apply: Another audiobook for another brutally long solo-drive. I found that Levy’s memoir commanded my attention, but very little else. Levy writes well about being a female journalist, about her experience as the wife of a woman with severe addiction issues, and about the late-term loss of her baby, but it failed to do, for me, what good memoirs do: Make the personal seem universal.

  • Louis Erdrich's Shadow Tag: Oh my god, this book was thunder. Erdrich is prolific and masterful, and this is not one of her more popular novels, but it is easily my favorite. Remember what I said about books finding us when we need them? This one came to when I needed it. It tore open the curtains, and shook my bones, and demanded I be awake. It tells the story of a woman gathering her own strength in the middle of her dysfunctional and abusive marriage, and the unraveling of a family along the seam of the parents’ wrecked marriage. It’s a violent, angry novel, and it demanded I pay attention. I finished it on a Sunday, and immediately began re-reading it.

  • Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own: I read this book slowly during my mid-summer literary dry spell, but each time I opened it, I felt like I was being spoon fed wit and wisdom. Spinster is equal parts memoir, literary criticism, and social commentary. Bolick writes about her five “awakeners” -- female writers who composed and comprised Bolick’s development as a woman and artist. Although much was made about the marriage issue -- both the title and Bolick’s meditation on her decision to never marry -- I found marriage was a minor part of this book. Instead, Bolick writes holistically about what it means for a woman to build a life of her own choosing. I picked up this book now, a few years after its publication, because this is a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly this year. Bolick doesn’t provide answers, but she does provide solace -- that these questions are hard to ask, and that answers are hard to come by, and that every woman has, if not the opportunity, at least the right to build for herself a good life.

  • Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea: I bought this book years ago, and I’m pretty sure I picked it off the clearance table, because I liked the contrast of a white cover, blue-scale cover art, and raised red lettering. When I finally pulled it from my shelf this spring, I barely knew what it was about. It’s one of those novels where a description of the plot makes the book sound tinny and shallow -- prep school sailor is mourning the loss of his best friend and sailing partner while building new relationships, confronting fresh tragedy, and finding grace and answers for himself in the process -- but Dermont’s novel is rich and graceful and generous. Her portrait of the interior life of Jason, her narrator, is complex and nuanced, while her language is beautiful and playful. I loved-loved this novel, and found so much mournful, hopeful beautiful within its pages.

  • Rupi Kaur's The Sun and Her Flowers: I’ve never read much poetry, and while I think that the kind of Instagram poetry that Kaur writes is making poetry much more accessible for a wider audience, I’ve never sought it out. I enjoyed reading The Sun and Her Flowers, and burned through it in just a few days, but it didn’t heal me or change me or make me new. There was something too tidy about her poems. Maybe it was the way they were packaged, each section charting the life cycle of a plant, or the way she wrote with such seriousness, but there was a texture or a roughness that I wanted. Life is rarely this tidy, and healing never is. (I also wasn’t aware until after finishing this book that the authenticity of her poetry has been called into question a few times, as has her exploitation of the trauma experience).

  • Nafisa Haji's The Sweetness of Tears: A forgettable book from the very beginning of the year. I believe I remember thinking that the plot spanned too much time, tried to cover too much ground, and relied too heavily on coincidence. I also remember the language being exhausting. I can’t find the book on my shelf, so I must have gotten rid of it immediately upon finishing.

  • Julia Glass's Three Junes: The first book I read in 2017, and maybe my favorite. I read it immediately following my grandfather’s death, and like good novels do, this book helped me heal. It was full, and beautiful, and gorgeously written. Read more here.

  • Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: Again, with the “books finding you.” I read this in 2016 as well, and last year, I was underwhelmed and sometimes annoyed with Strayed’s particular brand of big-hearted truth-telling. This year, when I read it, I was riveted. I said that I read this year looking for wisdom, and I sat underneath the Sugarfountain looking to be cleansed. One thing I know I learned this year: My cynicism is boring, my life is gift, and what’s wrong with fighting hard to make it all beautiful.

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  • Meghan Daum's The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion: Another one of my book-drought books. I started reading this book in June, and finished it two days ago. This was the first of Daum’s collections that I’ve read, and while I found the collection, as a whole, a little patchy, I appreciated the overall work. I loved the essays “The Best Possible Experience,” “Not What It Used to Be,” and “The Joni Mitchell Problem.” Daum is funny, thoughtful, and “real.” I want to read more of her in 2018.

  • Mary Oliver's Upstream: Selected Essays: I read this book in two rainy days, and it burrowed straight under my skin. Oliver is a beautiful essayist, and this collection is stunning. She writes with the authority of age, but this book is neither confessional or even terribly personal. Instead, it’s a meditation on wisdom, and the natural world, and beauty, and aging. This book is another gift Oliver has given us, and like her poetry, each word on the pages seems deliberate, smooth and beautiful -- pebbles plucked from Blackbird pond.

  • Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys: I struggled to get through this behemoth of a book, but when I finally got to the end, it stripped me bare. This was the first Joyce Carol Oates’ I’ve read, and while I’m currently hesitant to pick up more of her books, this book stayed with me. More here.

  • Amy Poehler'sYes Please: One of the few re-reads. I picked up Yes Please again, because Amy Poehler is so funny, and so generous, and so smart, and she gives so many opportunities in her book to learn. I now own a copy of this book, and it sits on my shelf more like a reference text than a memoir. Creativity? Failure? Love? Friendship? Ambition? She could tell you something about all of it.

As always, friends, I need to know: What did I miss? What else do I need to read? Tell me your titles!

merry christmas: thoughts on tradition + what comes after seasons of waiting

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As a child, I was militant about holiday traditions. The music we played when we decorated the Christmas tree, the dishes served on Christmas Eve, the snack we chose when we drove through neighborhoods at night, looking for lit-up houses. My mother, survivor of a sad childhood and painful Christmases, worked hard to create a whole season of warmth and love and the familial familiar. She did far too good of a job. I looked forward to the month of December with an anxious longing. There was so much light for us to bottle up, so few days to do so.

I remember waiting for the nights to grow so long the bus would drop us off in the dark. I’d run down the hill towards home, looking for the straw star, hanging in the kitchen window, gold against the deep blue of winter night. As an eight year old, it stirred in me something too deep to name. Family or home or some form of safety so fundamental, so elemental it strikes against our evolutionary code.

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Last year, my grandfather died two days before Christmas. A sudden, cruel phone call that cut through all the tinsel and lights. Grief and then illness cut Christmas short. I pulled all the decorations down on the night before his funeral, and boxed them hurriedly. My grief was dark. I needed lights off to feel it, sit with it.

I wonder if it’s the coming anniversary of his death that has tempered this holiday season, or if it’s simply, as I’m finding in different ways all across my life, that I don’t need the rhythms to give me comfort this year. I decorated a tree, sweet and small and a hand-me-down from my grandmother, but not on the pre-appointed date (day after Thanksgiving, always, so the short season will be as long as possible). I’ve watched some of the movies, listened to some of the music, but have done neither with the same kind of strategy. It sounds silly, but I had a schedule -- this movie, at this point in the month, to accompany this activity. I baked cookies, both alone and with people, but I haven’t baked what I always deem “traditional” yet. At this point, I likely won’t get to them at all.

At some point in my teenage years, my mom had to talk to me about my traditions-stringency. It was too much for the rest of the family, too much for her. I had so many expectations, so many demands. I took the joy out of our customs when I required they be performed, and I removed from our family the ability to relax into the season, adapt to our always-changing selves.

I mellowed out after that. (Thank God. I remember the anxiety I used to feel to try to squeeze! it! all! in! Even as a child, I worried about how fleeting the holiday season was, and how long it would take to get back to it again. In high school, I faked sick to give myself an extra day to bake cookies, and sit under the lights of our tree). But even with my mellowing, I was still careful to perform my traditions. This song, first thing on the morning of Black Friday, as I unpacked the decorations. Thinking about it now, it’s no wonder I always cried as a child, silently and without understanding, on the drive back home from my grandparents’ house. I was so desperate to stock up on joy; I couldn’t stomach it all ending.

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This year, I feel mellower than ever about Christmas. Two days from the day and on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, I don’t feel desperate or giddy or anxious or panicked about what the season was or what the next few days will be.

When I decorated my Christmas tree, I turned into a child again. I cleaned my apartment, organizing corners and dusting off shelves, to prepare for the tree, and when I unpacked the ornaments, I did so with the explosiveness of a toddler -- everything out so I could see it. Then I hung each ornament with extraordinary care, tracking down the memory that accompanies each one. When I drove home, one night in the dark, I nearly wept at all the lights on houses and trees. Every single decoration tickled something young and enchanted inside of me. One of the first pieces of writing I ever had published was a short essay about Christmas wonder that my dad sent in to the Twin Cities newspaper without me knowing. I re-read it this year, and even though I shudder at my use of adjectives (people, who, other than 16 year old Torrie, uses words like dulcet and cordiality), I resonated with the idea that Christmas is a season of “anticipation,” of “the beautiful, unrestrained and determined faith of a child.”

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I don’t observe Advent, but I do think about what it means to wait. Last year at this time, I was sad and angry, and, although I didn’t know it at time, on the brink of some of the deepest soul-searching and self-building I’ve done yet. I was waiting for something hidden inside me to come to bloom. Out of the darkness of my grandfather’s death, out of the ensuing grief and the shattering loneliness that marked the first months of 2018 came something really beautiful: a life I was happy to be living.

This Christmas, I’ve felt less beholden to a performance of Christmas and more childlike about Christmas than I have in years. I feel mellow and happy and glad for the season. I baked a cake on Wednesday, and plan to frost it before we leave for a Christmas party today. My mom said about Thanksgiving that she likes how our family is at ease, but doesn’t want us to sacrifice tradition. I don’t see it that way. I’ll spend Christmas Eve at my parent's house, with the people I love. We plan to bake cut-out cookies, the kind we baked when my brother and I were young, but who knows how much of the family will actually participate. We’re going to be together. We’re going to sit in front of an actual fireplace (my parents heat their house with burning wood). We’ll have stockings hung, and trees lit, and I’m sure I’ll get shouted down when I suggested we watch a Christmas movie together. (At this point, that’s happened enough to call it tradition). I’ve done about half the Christmas “stuff” I usually do, and have enjoyed all of it twice as much. After Christmas day, I’ll have some time off work. I’m looking forward to rest, to New Year’s Eve, to 2018 beginning. I’m so grateful for all of it.

I wonder if this is what it’s like to be, at least for a little while, at the end of the waiting. To just, for a little while, be.

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i hate to talk about my body but...

Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit? There’s nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach if round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.” - Cheryl Strayed -

Living in a woman’s body is funny, and for some of us (most of us, I’d contend) really hard. I’ve written before about what it feels like to wage war with your body, and although I’ve come really far since then, I have days and weeks and sometimes longer where my body feels more shame and excess than love and strength.

I’m in one of those weeks right now. Last night, I laid awake worrying about a particular pair of tights. They sometimes feel like a trap for my flesh and other times, they move softly on top of my body. I would like to wear them this weekend, but how will they feel and, more importantly, how will I feel with them on?

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I got really small this summer. I’ve been small for most of my adulthood, always within 5 to 10 pounds out of range of that mythical “goal weight,” but small. Then this summer, I got really small. I lost weight quickly and naturally in April and May. Shedding excesses I no longer needed.

Getting smaller coincided with getting happier (no coincidence there). I stopped emotionally eating, started enjoying everything around me more, including both food and the strength of my own body. I was freer and less encumbered by a lot of stuff I didn’t need, including about 10 pounds.

My mom looked at my reflection in a mirror in May, and said “you’ve gotten really skinny.” I said, “I know I have.” She said, “you like it don’t you?”

I really did.

(For a little while, and then I got too skinny. I never dieted or skipped meals or did anything unhealthy to lose weight, I just got careless with my nutrition and ate too many meals of sliced apples and microwave popcorn. When we were first dating, my boyfriend would ask me what I ate, and if it didn’t seem like enough food, he cooked a meal a meal for. I quickly gained back a healthy amount of “soft” weight, and then began to develop muscle and strength).

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I think often about my body, maybe even more so after this summer. I’ve come a long way from the insecurities of my teens and early twenties, but I’m still not entirely at peace within my body. I’m quicker to stop negative self-talk, and I’m more intentional about practicing love towards myself. I’ve learned a lot about health, and about what makes my body feel good, and have come to (nominally) accept that my body is a vessel meant to give me a home. I’ve learned that I do feel best when I’m trim and strong, and because of the natural shape of my body, that does mean I look small. But I also know I’m not willing to go into the business of full time beauty maintenance.

I like wearing crop tops without worrying about what the exposed parts of my body look like, and I like jeans that hug my legs. I like to see when my muscles swell and shape and sharpen. I like working out, because feeling strong inside my skin is a high. I also loved last Saturday night when, after an evening of vegan wings and bar snacks, me and my boyfriend brought home a sack of tacos and queso and ate until we hurt. I like keeping a list of the “best burgers” in the Twin Cities on my phone, because I like eating cheeseburgers and I also like the hunt for a “best one.” I also love this feeling I sometimes get when, for the briefest of seconds, I remember how very little it all matters, because we all have bodies, and they all have flaws, and sometimes my stomach will be soft and other times my skin will be marked. I like how freeing that feels.

There’s so much contradiction within me about my body and about the factors that contribute to the body that I have. Even though I’m happier, healthier and more confident than I’ve been in years (for reasons that have nothing to do with my body), I still sometimes look at my flesh, and wish I could edit it. I want a big life, and so far, I feel proud of my twenty-five years; they’re not may, but I’ve learned a lot and I’m stronger and more at peace, because of them. I wouldn’t edit those years, and I wish I could stop myself from wanting to edit the body that brought me through all of them.

A few Saturdays ago, I talked to a friend about the journey we’re both on to love our bodies. We got on the conversation after making a joke about how some days, when we workout, we feel strong and magical and goddess-like, and then other days we feel like limp pasta shoved into spandex. My bright-light of a friend said that she was fighting to give her body the same love on weak days as she gives it on strong days. I thought about how I want to give my body the same love on self-conscious days as I do on confident days.

I feel whiny and indulgent talking about my body, especially in such a public forum (although, let’s be real, I don’t exactly have a “readership” for this little blog), because who does give a shit, but also at the same time, loving yourself is hard. Finding ways to get comfortable inside your skin, all the while knowing that your skin is going to change probably this month, definitely this year and absolutely definitely in years to come, is really, really hard. I want to care for myself well without starving myself (physically or emotionally). I know I will, but I don’t want to look at pictures from these young years, and wish for the opportunity to tell that girl she’s beautiful without such demolition. I think we’re all working on finding that balance.

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As an aside, I was re-reading some old posts this past week, and I disliked how often I heard a tone of resolution in my writing. I am a work in progress, and when I write about anything on here, I write about it, because I’m processing and am in process. If I ever sound like I’ve “solved” anything, I’m lying in word or tone. I’m at work here: on body image and confidence, as well as on my mental health and my fear and my happiness and my comfort and my writing and my relationships.

thoughts on self-care

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"A world in which self-care has to be such a trendy topic is a world that is sick. Self-care should not be something we resort to because we are so absolutely exhausted that we need some reprieve from our own relentless internal pressure. True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from." - Brianna Wiest

I spent Friday night alone to rest. It was a busy week, and I had a bad cold for all of it. I really, really need rest, but in order to do so, I had to cancel on a holiday party I was invited to (which I really, really didn't want to do).

I have a complicated relationship with the idea of "self-care," because I think that being kind to yourself is one of the most fundamental things we all (but in particular, we women) need to learn how to do, but also I think that lots of selfishness, consumerism and blatant bad decisions get excused by calling it "self-care."

Last spring, when I was the most strung out and burnt out by the life I was living, I wrote about self-care. I re-read that short essay now, and I cringe a little bit, but I also feel a kind of sad-happiness for that girl. On the one hand, my attempts at self-care seem flimsy in comparison to circumstances I was trying to care my way out of, but on the other hand? That girl was learning so much. I was learning so much.

One of the primary things I was learning was that even though life is so damn hard it turns our bones brittle and our skin rough, each waking minute doesn't have to be a battle.

I was thinking about "self-care" last night when I was home sick, because I found myself practicing some of the form of self-care I used to rely on. I used to put so much stock into baking a batch of cookies or reading a book to make me feel better. I remember pleading with myself just to get to the end of the day or end of the week so I could zone out in front of the television, or lose myself in a book, or in the mindless of baking. These habits alone, though, rarely brought me what I needed, because - and this is what I know now - self-care isn't giving yourself permission to escape when you find yourself breaking. Self-care is working hard to live a life that doesn't break you.

I said this last week too: Life is hard. We're approaching the one-year anniversary of my grandfather's death, and its bringing new waves of grief. I'm getting my financial house in order, but I'm not there yet, and my chest sometimes gets tight with money-worry. My network of friendship has splintered, and even though I maintain some dear, old friends and have met some new, wonderful people, my circle of relationships are, on the whole, smaller and less intimate than ever. I feel lonely sometimes. I read the news, and then, like every woman I know, I have to grapple again with the ways I've experienced harassment and assault and violence and degradation. Life is still as hard as it ever was, but I now have a life that can handle it all better.

I spent spring 2017 learning how to gather up strength inside myself, and then I spent summer 2017 living a life I no longer needed escape from. This was - and is still - the kind of self-care I'm trying to practice. Cultivating a life from which I don't need to escape.

Last winter, I begged with the universe "why can't it just be easier?" My life is easier now. It just is. I got to bake last night, not because I needed something to make me feel better equipped to face my life, but because I wanted to. Because it was fascinated to see how butter and sugar caramelized and then crystallized into these delicate, lacy cookies.

I said the same thing last week, but god, it feels good to not have to escape anymore.

snapshots of a happy summer + why i've been quiet

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I've left this space deliberately blank for several months, but I think I'm ready to return to it.

I spent the last three seasons living my life. For years, since I was a teenager (maybe earlier), I had the sense that there was some fullness of experience that I wasn't getting my hands on. I paired with a crippling fear of what may come should I try to get to wherever that fullness was, and I lived inside of small boxes. It's hard to explain to people who have been less afraid to me how deeply joyful and fundamentally expansive and overwhelmingly delightful it is to say yes instead of no. It's wild and full, and it's oxygen to empty lungs.

I spent the better part of the year hacking away at all these vines that had grown up around my life. Light after darkness? When you can claw your way to it, it's glorious. It shows up on your skin and in your bones.

One of my uncles said to me: You look happy in your eyes. And my mom said: You don't look scared anymore. And countless people said: You just look different, in a really good way. I told them this is what good looks like on me.

-

This summer, I saw things that I'd once clung to slip off my skin like water.

Between May and November, I read very little. It wasn't an active aversion - books weren't a struggle, but no longer were they a salve. One of the first warm afternoons in May, I took a blanket and a stack of books into the yard. I spent three hours moving my blanket to follow the sun, and not once did I open my books. Over and over, I found myself more content to sit quietly with my own thoughts, than I was to fill my mind with someone else's. What little I did read, though, was brilliant, and radical, and healing.

Television, too, has lost some of it's appeal. I've written before about how much I love well made TV, and while that's still true enough, I don't have the same stomach for it anymore. I still haven't seen the new season of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things, and I haven't even cared to give Mindhunter a chance. This is nothing intellectual or enlightening, I can still fritter away hours like a champion, I just don't have the need I used to to anesthetize. Why would I, when all of a sudden, mine was so bright, and so beautiful, so equal parts terrifying and exhilarating?

I also wrote very little. Circumstance often left me without a laptop or without the paper manuscripts I work off. A notebook and pen were easy to carry with me, so I wrote extensively for myself and about extensively. But the littleworldsI'vespentyearscreating? I left them empty and untended to for months. I am coming back to these, but I'm finding it harder to slip into someone else's skin now that mine has grown so easy.

Of all the changes I experienced this summer, losing my anxiety was most exciting. At some point this spring, it began to steam off my body the way fog burns away underneath a rising sun.

Do you know what it's like to feel at ease in the world? For a long, long time I didn't. I've writtena lotabout howmy anxiety is (was) a constant negotiation. I carried Xanex and apples with me, chamomile tea and a book in my bag. I was always bracing for what next thing would cause that awful, nauseous fear. And then I woke up one day, and it was gone. New people? Crowded rooms? Spending time with someone new? With several new people? With a whole room of new people? May, June, and most of July were one long rope of anxiety triggers, and not once was I triggered. When a friend asked me how I was handling all these social situations I was describing, I laughed. Afraid of being rejected? People have done worse to me than not like me.

At the beginning of November, I felt the first tremors of dread that I'd felt in six months. It took me a minute to recognize that particular internal shaking, but when I did, I breathed through it. It's going to be okay. Not because it's meant to be, or because it has to be, but because it always has been."

I cried, one Monday morning, when I realized that I'd spent an entire weekend meeting new people. Not once, in three days of introductions, did I want to peel back my own skin and hide. (Big, big thanks also to the man I was with).

I am now at ease.

It may be gone for just this season, but I really hope it's not. Of all the things that have rolled away from me this year, my anxiety is the one thing I most hope will never, never return.

I spent much of June hot and in my underwear. I was living with people who were rarely at home when I was, and because of it, I spent most of my evenings alone, and on this beautiful porch. I'd set myself up with a book and maybe a glass of wine. The sun would set all pinks and oranges over the neighborhood. One night, I heard a little boy yell at this dad "no, you need to go to bed!" Another night, the pre-teens next door played basketball and worked on memorizing the lyrics to 1-800-273-8255. I listened The Weeknd (surprise soundtrack to my month of peace) on loop, and rarely opened my book. I was so much more content to lie on that sofa, and reflect on who I was. Who I might be. Life was (is, will always be) as astoundingly, fundamentally hard as it was ever, but the difference was (is) that it's hard in ways I want to be awake for. I think that's the reason why I've been foregoing so many of my old habits. I no longer want to be distracted. Comfort isn't the endgame anymore.

When I was a freshman in college, I was far too deep in the throes of an anxious depression to experience that particular thrill of being on the precipice of that which you cannot fully grasp. June was me on that ledge. I called it an ecstatic explosion. I didn't have any other words to explain the compounding joy of learning and relearning to live a life of my own choosing.

I know that I've rambling, and I know that a lot of this is vague, but this is my way of coming back. For two years, I found something hopeful and inspiring about writing here for an audience so small it could barely be counted. At some point, writing became another coping mechanism in my deep chest of survival tools. I'm ready to come back to blogging (I'm even giving this space a new name, y'all!), because I'm hoping it gives me a path back in to the fiction writing I've loved for so long.

Onward, right? Always, always onward.

comfort isn't an endgame

I went for a walk in the rain today, trying to train myself, as Mary Oliver instructs: "Attention is the beginning of devotion."

The air was cold, and the tips of my fingers, ungloved, stung as they adjusted to the wet. I repeated to myself, again and again, that I don't need to be comfortable, that comfort does not need to be my aim.

The park was deserted, except for a three other people, and I dropped down into small valley that water, once, carved out. Underneath the birds, and the rains, and the rushing water, music played in my head. I repeated lines to myself, and tried to pay attention. I was out, because I needed it. On a primal level. These last few months, I've made jokes about wanting to lie down in the dirt, but underneath the laughter, I think there is something profound and true in my desire to touch the ground. I was an outdoors girl. I hiked (in flip flops, as my mom will tell you), and I camped, and I tried to build for myself small words of my own that didn't need shelter from walls or the root. I've been out of touch with that part of myself, and I've suffered for it.

Today, I stayed in the rain even though it made me uncomfortable, because I knew that I needed it. I sat on the trunk of a fallen tree, rushing water on either side of, and watched the current move dark over stones and branches and other unseen things. I stayed there, and watched one large log, hung up on brambles and rocks, be pushed in and out of visibility. Deep fears of what lies underneath the water stirred in me (I pictured dead bodies, then I pictured my own, if I were to slip from my perch). I let the discomfort build, but I was safe, and because why do I always try to turn away from fear?

I walked slow enough to see wildflowers, bright and beaded with rain. I knelt at a dark pond, and watched bubbles puncture the flat surface. Small green things lay just underneath the water - early spring grasses, a maple leaf, wild green with black veins. I put my hands into the water, and then I pushed them into the dirt. I wanted the tactility of mud on my skin, the feel of small vines - life finding its way - giving way underneath my fingers. I scratched into the earth, and pulled up fistfuls of black mud, muscular with roots. It smelled rich and rotten, and was cold even on my numbed fingers. I smeared my hands with the dirt until they were dark and streaked and gritty. I turned my palms up; the rain made clean circles of my skin. Later, I knelt at the creek, and let the current, warm compared to the mud, wash away the rest of the dirt.

As I knelt, the trees above me flapped, and a great blue heron landed in the water in front of me, its body a thing of lethal grace. I froze, so as not to alert him, and watched him move through the water. He stepped slowly, his body rising and falling with the shifting depths of the creek bed. As I watched him, I tried to remember which dead relative (of mine - or was it someone else's?) had loved great blue herons.

He walked against the current, spindle legs adapted for the water in a way that mine, if they were where his were, were not. Once he moved past where I could see him, he stopped long enough to let me move, come closer than I had been before. I sat, this time, on the wet rocks, and continued to watch him. I'm sure he knew it too. He plucked his way, delicate, through the water, catching minnows in his beak, until he heard something I did not in the woods, and lifted his wings into flight. I stood with him, and watched him circle above me, and above the creek, and then above trees. I continued to watch until I couldn't see his movement any longer, the woods returned to their raining stillness.

It didn't matter if someone I loved once loved blue herons. This moment was mine, not theirs, firmly of this earth, and of my silent attention.

I walked back to my car after that, my fingers too numb to bend, and my legs and hair drenched in rain, and thought about Mary Oliver, and why we need homes "not of beam and nail, but of existence itself."

"How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways. But also the universe is brisk and business like, and no doubt does not give its delicate landscapes or its thunderous displays of power, and perhaps perception too, for our sakes or our improvement. Nevertheless, its intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them." Mary Oliver's, Upstream

be kind to yourself

A woman once told me that I need to learn to be kind to myself.

I was reentering the world after a deep depression, and finding a life that I didn't know I'd had. I was in the process of both beginning and ending relationships. I was no longer panicking daily. I was beginning to store memories again.

She knew all this, and I told her I was doing better. She laughed, and said "you still need to do it."

I called (or maybe emailed?) her and asked what she meant. I don't remember her answer, but that that night, I stopped by a bakery and bought a slice of chocolate cake.

I ate it at my university-issued desk in the dorm room I once hated. The window was open. Someone in the courtyard was playing Joni Mitchell.

-

This past few days? They were hard ones. Pedestrian culprits - long hours, insomnia, crap food hoovered in inconvenient places. I came to the end of the week depleted.

My work follows a cycle that peaks in March. My hours will go bonkers, rhythms thrown out the window. My stress levels go up, sleep goes down. I read less, workout less (though my job itself becomes physical), eat worse. I once described this season as "hell, but so great," because even though it's hard, it's powerfully rewarding. That being said, this weekend is the last entirely free weekend that I'll have in a while, and I'm savoring it.

I went grocery shopping yesterday afternoon, and the teenager who rang me up sang "My Girl" under his breath. I was so delighted (right up to the point when he pointed at the frozen pizzas and asked if I have teenagers. Kid, I'm 24!) I nearly cried.

Today, my plan is to be nice to myself. This sounds so self-indulgent I almost can't stand it, but I think practicing simple kindness towards myself will do me good.

I'm going to cook. I have a fridge full of fresh food (finally!), and I'm going to give myself time to follow a detailed recipe I clipped from a magazine several years ago. So rarely do I enjoy creating a meal.

I'm going to read. Amber Dermont's The Starboard Sea is captivating, but I'm also craving my weathered copy of Anne's House of Dreams. Since I was eleven, I've read all eight books in the Anne of Green Gables series in the spring. Last year, I didn't, and it felt like I leapfrogged something important.

It's rare for my days to feel loose and open. Even when I'm "free," I border my time, hem myself in with private plans. You know what feels radically kind today? To not do that.

The sun is out. Last night's dusting of snow is gone, and tomorrow, the temperature is supposed to reach the 60's. (And Minnesota said amen!). Two years ago (two!), I bought a candle that smelled so good I put it into a drawer. I placed the candle underneath my favorite piece of artwork (a drawing someone gave to my grandparents on their wedding day), and lit it. In my cupboard, I have cookies that taste best when they're eaten one at a time.

Too often, I catch myself thinking "why can't it all be easier?" Sometimes, it is.

Yesterday, I put pink tulips on my table, because when I was a little girl, my mother painted a border of tulips along the molding of my bedroom. I loved their pink, purple, and yellow. In the spring, I would try to pick them.

Kindness, sometimes, is easy like this.

what i'm reading + navigating the next

Of course, of course, I know that I can't know the future. And of course, of course, I know that there's only so much planning one can do before life becomes what it most consistently is: unexpected.

I keep saying of course, because I do know this, and I don't mean anything profound by it.

Still, the uncertainty of what's coming, the absolutely inability to know has been scaring the pants off me. Thus far, I've seen my future largely through the eyes of the young: it's all golden from here. But I know that cannot be true - two big blows within two weeks, the double whammy of death and diagnosis remind me that life often (or oftener) deals loss. The house always wins.

-

On the morning my grandfather died, the entire family crowded into a hospital room, and my grandmother sat closest to my grandfather's side. His death was quick and unexpected, and everyone kept saying some variation of "we didn't know this coming; we couldn't have known." I kept looking at my grandmother, thinking the same thing.

I have photographs of her as a bride on my walls, and I often think of her at that moment in her life. As young and beautiful and full of hope as she does look, she also looks dazed. I wonder what she was thinking, at the very, very start of her wifehood. (I asked her, once, and she told me that she hadn't planned to marry at all. She was going to teach, and have cats). There was so much in front of her, so much extraordinary (and, in many ways, beautifully ordinary) life still to come. She couldn't have known, then, what she knows now. That she'd spend more of her life married than not married. That she'd give birth to six healthy children, all of whom would grow safely to adulthood, that they'd each have children of their own. All this that we cannot, cannot know when we're young.

I think about how much life there (likely) is in front of me, and how much of it I cannot know.

This future I keep talking about, this fuzzy "what's next" is some days a gift to unwrap and other days a yawning, black unknown. (Please, a light). It's an exercise in futility to strategize my anxieties, but still, I keep trying to do so.

Books, as always, are my answer. I've been reading ravenously, a woman in need of water. Some of what I've read has been excellent (We Were the Mulvaneys, Follow Me Into the Dark, Born to Run), some of it sub par. I'm looking for wisdom, a way inside these baggy unknowns.

We Were the Mulvaneys, the story of a family's central and spiraling undoing, hangs right in the center of what is know and what cannot be known. It's a novel almost too good to bear, and in its final pages, it opened a door to something big and unnamed inside of me - the totality of family or history or intimacy or love. I'm not even sure what; I just known that I've been in that room before, and in it is beauty and pain.

I'm currently reading Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir written by the man who wrote one of my favorite novels. He too deals in what was. Kevin Fenton writes like a man still looking for his understanding (Merit Badges was like that too). Unlike other memoirs I've read, his writing reads like process, not like results.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Born to RunLeaving Rollingstone, even Follow Me Into the Dark, a novel unto its self (review to be submitted soon!), are all written with posterity. Lives that came apart, and came together again - or did both in ten thousand tiny ways. Each offers their own answers to these questions I'm trying to ask.

What else should I be reading?

what stories do I want to tell?

"The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else's shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I'm compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It's one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day." Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass' Three Junes, a National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do - it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy's body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was "this is the kind of book I want to write."

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn't know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I've been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain, and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else's dark world, that's not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can't write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light - I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance - the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I've loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed's Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That's the kind of novel I want to try to write, that's the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about "serious" versus "not serious" writing. In many ways, that's what I've been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I've been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it's tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I've been doing, it's really exciting to give myself this limit, to say "this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell." I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero-in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don't), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

because we also need rest

I spent yesterday at the Women's March on Washington- MN in St. Paul, joining 100,000 (100,000!) others to stand in solidarity with one another and with the freedoms we fear this new presidency will curtail (if not abandon all together). We the people - women, and men, and LGBTQIA-identifying people, children and families, and elderly people with walkers, and mothers wearing their sleeping babies, school-age kids with signs they made themselves (Please Trump be nice, one read). It was an incredible, invigorating, and hopeful day. Representative Ilhan Omar told us: "Remember you are mighty, you are powerful, and you will never be defeated." I said afterwards that it felt like we all showed up to make a promise to one another that this will be where it starts, not where it ends.

It was a powerful, powerful day, but it/the whole week was also powerfully exhausting. I'm deviating from my regular rhythm of long essays to share a handful of goodness from the past week or so.

LISTENING: Y'all, my love of podcasts runs deep (especially when road closures extend my commute even further). I listened to a lot of My Favorite Murder this past week, because I needed to clear up the backlog of episodes, and because the hosts, Georgia and Karen, are so funny. I also caught up on The Hilarious World of Depression. The first few episodes of this new show coincided with the bluest of my blue December days, and it was a double gift to listen to funny people talk about their experiences with mental illness. Fresh Air is a perennial favorite, but what was transcendent was this conversation from 2015 between Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, both "brilliant women who are also total babes."

READING: The first two books I read in 2017 were excellent. The first, Julia Glass' Three Junes, a novel from 2003 that my mom passed along to me a few months ago, was the beautiful, elegant vehicle that I needed to process through my grandfather's death. Glass wrote a novel that lets you hold life and death in both hands without either becoming heavier than they aught. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and it's made me think again about my first, unfinished novel. After Three Junes, I jumped back into Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, and devoured the the 300 pages I had left in two days. I came to this memoir as a fan, and on those terms, it could do no wrong, but this book can succeed on its own. What I found in Springsteen's writing was an incredibly thoughtful meditation on the intersection between creating art and creating a self.

"I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family, and to you."

Elsewhere, I've been devouring everythingBianca Basshas everwritten, finding inspiration from the photography on Lumiere and Lens (Alyse's writing is lovely too!), thinking a lot about our relationship to stuff, and asking this old question: how much does productivity actually hurt us?

WRITING: Editing, technically, a short story I'm very excited about. I don't love writing short fiction, and only do it "when inspiration strikes" (a habit that's total shit when it comes to my longer projects), but I find that I return to short stories when I'm stymied by whatever long project I'm working on. Right now, and I'll probably write about this soon, I'm feeling haunted by my first novel. Can I ever really move on to a new novel if this one remains in a state of undone?

WATCHING: A very soft New Year's resolution was to cut back on my TV watching. I love well made television, and have no shame over how much of it I've watched, but it can get consuming (especially when I re-watch all of Sex and the City even though I've seen it + hate it). But, this week, I dug Planet Earth out of the movie collection, and watched two episodes back to back: Mountains and Freshwater. Watching Planet Earth was the viewing equivalent of a massage. The big, beautiful, overwhelming, vast and complex world we live in is mesmerizing. It gave me the most peace I've had in a few weeks.

Finally, I always thought Minnesota had a lock on creating art out of snow, but I found these Japanese snow characters incredibly delightful. I've also resumed my pre-work/pre-dawn morning ritual, and reading this essay made remember why the 5:20 a.m. alarm clock is worth it.

What about you? What's been getting you through the month?

how to undo fear

When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a party and not know what to do, that there would be a party and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a gun, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford a car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I've feared becomes the thing that's real, and takes its own seat at the table.

how to start 2017: intentions for a new season

I love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness, and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself, and the year that came was strange, disorganized, and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before Christmas, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (this language makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

- Exercise my body -

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It helped in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.” Habit: four times per week. Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

- Read daily -

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write. Habit: Read daily. Hope: Revival.

- Write (almost) daily -

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for. Habit: Write (almost) every day. Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

- Reflect, purposefully and consistently -

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one. Habit: Regular, written reflection Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking for myself instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

books of 2016: a year in review

 Jane Austen reading room, Mia

Jane Austen reading room, Mia

I had a disorganized year of reading - and writing, but that's for a different day. I read more books that I have in previous years, but the quality was lacking. I want to read books that shake me, makes my bones rattle, and while I absolutely did read a few of these (The Neapolitan Series left me strung out and raw), I also read a lot of filler. This was due in part to the fact that I was reading to clear my shelves - trim away that books that didn't rock me to make way for more that to -, but it was also partly due to the reality of my year.

I can see in retrospect that I spent a lot of 2016 working hard to just get by. A few high-intensity, low-happiness spring months kicked off a very slow slide into the deep anxiety and mild, but tenacious depression with which I am closing out the year. Rounding up all of my 2016 titles made it clear that many of my choices were attempts to read for comfort. The problem was that I reached for a lot of shaky rafts, a lot of escapist reading when I needed to transcend.

While much of what I read this year didn't have the teeth I want from my fiction, I hope to change that in 2017. I'll still be reading to trim (for the first time in my life, I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unread pages on my shelves), but I want my literary life to feel more like a revival than it did this year. I have a few books on my nightstand that I'm excited about, but I'm also looking for suggestions. (I'm always looking for suggestions.)

So, in alphabetical order, all the books I read in 2016.

  1. Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence: I've read this book many times, and each time I pick it up, I am amazed by the grace of the language, and the precision of its observations. This was a comfort read that did not let me down. I read this in the wake of the election. For the first time, I had no sympathy for Newland, and all the praise and power for May and Ellen, each powerful women in their own right.

  2. Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None: For all my love of the detective novel (give me an opening and I will diagram for you the social and historical importance of detective fiction), I've never read Agatha Christie. I picked this novel up on a rainy spring afternoon when I went in search of cheer-me-up books. Classic whodunit, and despite all the death, this mystery was a delight.

  3. Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife: This is one of the few books I'd recommend not reading. Historical fiction imagining the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife to Charles, the narrative spans her entire adulthood, and attempts to position Anne's story as one of power lost, sought, and reclaimed. The writing was iffy, the narrative structure all over the place, and character development jagged, but the hardest pill to swallow was Benjamin's attempt to excuse and apologize for the couple's attitudes and opinions about Nazi Germany. History has no heroes, and I get the need to reconcile the good with the bad, but reading this attempt to smooth over the Lindbergh's blatantly anti-Semetic, pro-Nazi opinions in post-election 2016 was not worth it.

  4. Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist: My yearly lesson to not read hyped books (or give the hype a few years to die down). After hearing must-read-able this book was, I expected an earth-shaking, ground-breaking treatise on political and cultural feminism. This book is not that. What it is is a series of thoughtful, thought-provoking essays on gender, race, sex, and popular culture (heavy on the latter). My roof blown off, but I benefited from this book, particularly from the critique of popular culture depictions of the Black American experience.

  5. Toni Morrison's Beloved: Transcendent. I've been intimidated of Morrison's writing ever since reading her for the first time when I was eleven (Love, and I was too young), so though I own most of her books, I've only read a few. Beloved was a glorious, harrowing, exquisite experience. There's nothing I can say about Toni Morrison that hasn't already been said, so I'll join the choir and preach. Read this!

  6. Julia Keller's Bitter River: Don't read this. It's a small town cop mystery, but somehow, we go from pregnant teenager dead in a river to terrorist attack in Appalachia. Confused? Me too, and not just because this writer traffics solely in compound sentences and wildly irrelevant tangents.

  7. Tina Fey's Bossypants: I love when smart, funny women write about themselves. Tina Fey is a decent essayist, and is at her best when she's talking about the work or talking about being a woman. I got tired of her constantly making herself the butt of her own joke, but as another girl whose never known what cool is, I appreciated the honesty and humility.

  8. Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps: Mary McCarthy is a master class in observational writing. This is a novel of connected short stories about a young woman in 1930's New York City. It's very much of its time in tone and style, but it's a smart, carefully crafted examination of politics, gender, and social expectation. I read "Portrait of an Intellectual as a Yale Man" immediately following the election, and at a moment when gender, politics and power were all thrown into harsh focus, this story was a particularly haunting and insightful look at petty, privileged men and the radical woman who challenge them.

  9. Rosa Liksom's Compartment No. 6: This was a short, dark, beautiful novel. Translated from its original Finnish, the narrative follows a girl traveling across a late 80's Soviet Union to see hieroglyphs in Mongolia. I wrote a much longer review for Grist that you can read here, but the short of it is read this book.

  10. Ha Jin's A Free Life: The marketing calls this an immigrant's story, but after reading, I think that's too simplistic. Ha Jin uses the immigrant narrative as base camp for the Wu family, but then wraps them in layers of human complexity. As much as Nan, father and narrator, is an immigrant, he's also an aspiring poet, a frustrated father, a husband who pines for a former lover - a fully formed man struggling for identity and abundance in their many forms. This novel is dense, and Jin's writing style jars me, but I am so glad this novel.

  11. Joan London's The Golden Age: This was the best book I read all year. Published in Australia two years ago and released in the U.S. this summer, this novel is about a children's polio recovery home in post-war Australia. It is a stunningly graceful and impossibly hopeful novel about pain, loss, and resilience. It's a short, lyrical, abundant novel that takes life as it is, and sees, without sop or sentimentality, the beauty. Read my longer review for fieldshere.

  12. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind: Another re-read. President's Day weekend, Valentine's Day, frigid temperatures and a head cold lined themselves up, and I spent a long weekend reading this. I read this novel for the first time when I was 10, and I was far too young to understand the Confederate nostalgia or the references to the KKK. I thought I was reading a big, epic story with a fierce, mean, tougher-then-hell woman at its center. This was the first time I've read GWTW that I've been critical enough to see both, I'm not sure there's a way to reconcile the blatant racism and historical inaccuracies with this story of powerful women and their survival.

  13. Ali Wentworth's Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales: Audiobook is the way to "read" a celebrity memoir. I listened to both of Ali Wentworth's memoirs on two back-to-back work trips, and each was delightful. This one, the first, covers her adolescence and adulthood up to the point of her marriage. It's fantastically funny, and at more than few points, surprisingly tender.

  14. Ali Wentworth's Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales: Wentworth's second memoir, and I liked it even better than the first. Each chapter is framed by an inspirational quote, and the wisdom that she gained (or didn't) from it. Wentworth deals funny and real in the same hand, and these books of hers are delightful.

  15. Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: I wasn't going to read this. I have strong opinions about why, out of respect for the reader, J.K. Rowling needs to stop writing about Harry Potter, and I was not going to read this post-canon screenplay. Then, at 11 a.m. the morning the book was released, a copy wound up in my cart at Costco. I read it. I kind of wish I hadn't. One of the most beautiful gifts that a good writer can give to their reader is the chance to let the characters live on in each of our imaginations. Cursed Child didn't dim my love of the original books, but it confirmed all my purist, Harry Pottery snobbery.

  16. Kate Morton's The House at Riverton: It's become a habit to read Morton during the holidays, not because there's anything particularly festive about her work, but because she writes easy page-turners with pretty (if sloppy) prose. This was the 2016 read, and I read this while recovering from illness, and mourning the loss of my grandfather. Easily my least favorite Kate Morton book thus far, but it distracted + entertained when I most needed it.

  17. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games: I hadn't read these books or seen these movies until this year. I read the first two of the series (couldn't get into the third) in early spring, during the season when my work is at its most intense. I enjoyed them so much more than I expected. Pure escapist reading, but it was great.

  18. Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire: See above.

  19. Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A coworker nailed it when she said this was the least intimate memoir she'd ever read. It would probably be more accurate to call this book a music biography, and not a personal memoir. That (and the fact that being neither a fan of Sleater Kinney or punk music) aside, I really enjoyed this book. Brownstein writes crisp, muscular prose, and balances narrative with reflection well. The final three chapters, Be Still This Sad Year / Shelter / Home, are are beautiful and piercingly honest. They alone made the whole book worth it.

  20. Tana French's In the Woods: If you bill a book as a police procedural, you damn well better solve the mystery. The main character, male with tortured history, got a little whiny, a little too maudlin, but these small bits aside, I really enjoyed this novel. Right up to the point where they left one mystery unsolved. Mystery, I'm realizing, is a hard genre. Too much hype and nothing by the devil himself will made a decent reveal; not enough, and there goes the story. This story was all build, very little reveal. I've heard her later novels are more conclusive?

  21. Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers: On the few occasions that I've shared the premise of my first novel with people, this is the novel that they've said my story is "just like." (People, for the love of God, don't do this to writers. Sharing our ideas is hard enough, but to hear "oh, I've already read that" is devastating). When I finally read this novel, it threw me into a funk. I didn't love the novel - writing was a little flowery for me (no pun intended) and found the character's motivations unclear - but it did force me to grapple with the parallels to my story (some, but fewer than people assume), and the value of the story I'm trying to tell.

  22. Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend: I read this book in a day and a half (partly because some plane ticket fun kept me in the Memphis airport for about 7 hours). Reading Ferrante is like holding on to a live wire, and trying not to let go. I burned through the entire Neapolitan series, and when I finally came up for air, everything I'd ever read (and written) was ash in comparison. These are, far and way, the most extraordinary I have ever read.

  23. Elena Ferrante's The Story of a New Name: See above. Holding on to a live wire.

  24. Elena Ferrante's Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: See above. Read anything with her name on it.

  25. Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child: See above. The finest ending. What do you read after Ferrante?

  26. Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are: I read this book slowly over of several months. An exploration into the habit of gratitude, its thesis is that joy does not produce gratitude, but gratitude produces joy. The call is to cultivate a daily habit of delight, and I found that when I practice thanksgiving, I'm a softer, slower, better aware human.

  27. Elizabeth Taylor's Palladian: This is a strange, dark, delightful mid-century novel from the other Elizabeth Taylor. It's a loose re-telling of Jane Eyre, and a critique on the genre of Gothic literature. The cast of characters is off-kilter, the familiar - reclusive widower, precocious, motherless child, young governess - planted alongside the odd and out of place - a pregnant female doctor, the mother she has no patience for, very cranky service women, and an alcoholic brother, long in love with the dead mistress of the house. It's jarring to read such a familiar narrative populated by such unfamiliar characters + motivations, but really, really enjoyable. Maybe I'm too cynical, but I liked finally getting to root for the drunk.

  28. Kathleen Tessaro's The Perfume Collector: A forgettable novel. I read it at the beginning of the year and had to look up a synopsis to even remember its plot (I immediately got rid of my copy). It premise is intriguing - mysterious, female perfumer leaves her fortune to a stranger in a different country, narrative unravels who these women are and how they're connected. For me, the novel crumbled when romance and motherhood were reduced to plot devices. By diminishing each of these radical, transformation human experiences, the characters themselves were diminished.

  29. Rosamund Lupton's The Quality of Silence: Another that quickly wound up on the give-away pile. After hearing that her photographer husband died while on assignment in Alaska's Arctic Circle, mother Yasmin and deaf daughter Ruby steal a semi-truck and drive it across the tundra in the middle of a raging winter storm. And they're tailed by a stranger in a pick-up. And someone is sending them photos of dead animals. And there's an environmental terrorist on the loose. The plot give me whiplash, but I held on because I loved Lupton's prose so much. It howled with a lyrical force I can only dream of in my own writing.

  30. Amor Towles' Rules of Civility: I loved this novel. I loved it so much. It's a story of a woman in transition, making the choices that will pave the future that we, the reader, will not see. It's a beautiful meditation on time, choice, and playing life as it is laid.

  31. Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements: A book dripping with critical praise. I liked this novel a lot, the story of a family, with a wide cast of characters (many of whom are given voice in the narrative) in the week leading up to one daughter's wedding. Shipstead's observations are critical and sharp, but her prose is soft and lyrical. I like the balance - it gave the novel a human quality, multitudes contained in one.

  32. Kate Morton's The Secret Keeper: See above about Kate Morton. This was my 2015 holiday read, but I didn't finish it until after the new year. Very enjoyable. Very forgettable.

  33. Garth Stein's A Sudden Light: I wanted to like this novel so badly. I lovedRaven Stole the Moon, and picked up this book, Stein's latest, after a string of aborted attempts on other so-so books. A teenage boy returns, with his father, to the haunted family manor to cash out an inheritance and settle emotional debts, except friendly ghosts with ancestral secrets, and sexy, devious aunts cause problems. The novel read like a second draft that needed a third pass - writing not tight enough, plot holes too big, characters deflated.

  34. Truman Capote's Summer Crossing: This is Capote's first novel, written in the 40's, but unpublished until 2005. I read this in a blink. It's a story of the times - wealthy New York girl having an affair with a working class Jewish boy - and it's written with all the jittery drama of golden age Hollywood. Capote is young here, flexing his voice and reveling in his language. As a young writer, I love reading the early works of literary titans.

  35. Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: The first Hemingway I read was A Farewell to Arms, and it was an electric experience. I didn't know language could do what that novel did. Reading this novel, though, made me understand why people complain Hemingway - he writes whiny indulgences of the wealthy and vain. Not my favorite from the Western canon.

  36. J.R. Moehringer's Sutton: I've had this book on my shelf for several years, and when I finally started reading it, I wished I hadn't waited so long. Willie Sutton, first FBI Most Wanted, was released from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969, after having his sentence commuted, and he gave one newspaper interview the following day. Told in a series of flashback, Moehringer reimagines that interview and Sutton's early life as a love story. It's not a great novel in a critical sense - it relies on sympathy, sentimentality, and stock myths about pre-war gangsters - but I was swept up by the story, and by Moehringer's clipped, swift prose.

  37. Sarah Pekkanen's These Girls: As a teenager, I really liked the idea of beach read books about girls and their girlfriends and the boyfriends who never quite measure up. Every few months, I'd borrow a stack from the library, and never once was I able to read more than one of these books. This novel was written in that same vein. Three girls, connected through the New York City magazine work (and one hunky writer) deal with heartbreak, insecurities, secrets etc., etc., etc. I found the story vapid, and even its girls looking out for girls message did little for me. I grabbed this book on the way out the door as I were rushed to catch a flight to make it to a funeral. It was a comfort read that gave little comfort.

  38. Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: The cult of Cheryl Strayed is real, and I live on the fringes of it. I think she is a beautiful writer, and can often cut to the heart of human experience. As an advice giver, truth teller, wisdom mama for the millennial generation, I have less patience for her. I read this book slowly over about a month, because taking in all of it without a break would have been too much for me, but on a whole, I loved the book. For all my big-hearted optimism, I can be very cynical, and every now and again, it's good to rein in the princess of darkness and let the sun shine.

  39. Patricia Engel's The Veins of the Ocean: This was the first book I ever read for review (you can read it here), and a very good one to start with. A novel about a Colombian-American woman seeking freedom and redemption from the sins of her family and her former life. The plot is wide ranging, pulling narratives of immigration and dislocation, romance and wilderness, prison and passion, but at the heart is this question about what it mean for a person to be free. A very contemplative and, ultimately, hopeful novel, with a fluid, graceful voice.

  40. Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me?: Remember what I said about liking to read funny women write about themselves? Mindy Kaling's second memoir is a little more traditional than her first (and I liked that), but just as smart and funny. She focuses on her adulthood and post-success career, and hits all the big subjects - body image, dating, celebrity-hood. The reason I love reading funny women write about themselves is the heart of this book: Because it's a good goddamn thing to hear women recognize and applaud their own successes.

  41. Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People: My Halloween ghost story mystery, this novel was not spooky enough or mysterious enough for me. I did, however, love the inspiration for the book. From the dedication that McMahon wrote to her daughter: "Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods...'Sometimes it just happens.'"

  42. Emma Donoghue's The Wonder: This was the first novel I've read by Donoghue - people have been recommending Room to be for years, but I've never actually read it - and I think that tempered my reaction to this novel. It was good, and I really enjoyed it, but it was not the extraordinary work of genius that it's been lauded. It's a story about an Irish-Catholic girl who has been fasting for four months, and one nurse's attempt to discover the trick behind the fast, and save the girl's life. This was a very good story told very well, but for a novel that deals with themes as complex as faith, devotion, and duty, I was disappointed that Donoghue didn't leave the reader more room to mediate on them. Read my longer review here.

  43. Amy Poehler's Yes Please: My adoration of Amy Poehler is, I'm sure, one of the reasons I adored this book so much. It was the very first book I read in 2016, and all year long, I found myself returning to pieces of this memoir. She is as fresh and funny and frank as you could hope a celebrity to be, but she's also wise about being an artist, and being a woman, and being a human. This book was enjoyable, but more than that, it was valuable.

Books I'm Still Reading: Born to Run. Reading Bruce Springsteen's prose is beautiful, and moving, and a little bit like sitting in church...but it's taking me forever and a month to get through. This book will be on the 2017 round-up.

What did you read this year? What should I read next?