Body Image from a UU perspective

This is the text of a sermon I did at UUCC of Hendrick County on Sunday, February 28, 2016:

Let’s imagine a hypothetical world: In this world, most people are born with orange skin, and most, but not everyone has some random purple splotches scattered somewhere on their body. A few—say 10%–are born completely purple. Skin color changes changes somewhat over one’s life, and scientists don’t know exactly why. A person might start out mostly orange and develop visible purple splotches as they get older, or they might be born completely purple. Orange people often get more purple as they get older, but not always. Purple people might become more orange, but that usually only happens when purple people get sick. There’s no good way to determine what exact combination of orange and purple someone will be or end up and there is no biological difference between someone who is mostly orange or mostly purple.

If it’s anything like our society, there is a huge, multi-billion dollar industry that is designed to “help” people become less purple and more orange. But the reality is that skin color cannot be changed through any effort. A person’s body is the color that it is. It might change, but it might not. The color a person is and exact combination and change of their colors is a biological process that is not understood.

Imagine you are a purple person. How would you feel in the following situations?

  • Without any prompting or encouragement from you, people told you how they thought you could become more orange?
  • People incessantly talked about eating fewer purple things so that they wouldn’t become purple because the underlying assumption is that “everyone knows being purple is so terrible.”
  • Orange people with some purple splotches are advised to cover those areas because “who wants to see that ugly purple”.
  • In a social situation, folks compare how purple they feel that day, even though they seem completely orange and you can see no visible purple when you look at them.
  • How would you feel if you were objectively more purple than any one of the orange people who said that they “felt purple”?

Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this how we talk about fat and our bodies?

I believe that I, and all fat people, deserve respect and the right to live in our bodies just as they are. I use the word “fat” in its neutral sense as just a descriptor to reclaim it, just like many LGBT people have reclaimed queer and many African-Americans have reclaimed the N-word. You can jump off the diet rollercoaster by using another approach, called “Health at Every Size.” There is actual science that disproves the assumption that losing weight will make you healthier. But that’s not today’s focus. You may not be ready to give up dieting. But you can change the way you think about your body, regardless of what it looks like or what it can or can’t do.

You may be asking, what does body image have to do with being a UU? We are usually more focused on social justice for others. But the way we feel about our own bodies necessarily reflects and illuminates what we really think of other people’s bodies. Essentially, if we want to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all persons we have to start with ourselves. Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all persons means respecting even the fat ones. Our spaces need to welcome everyone no matter how much of their time and talent they can contribute, who they love, or how much of the pew they take up. We need to ensure that our spaces don’t exclude people even if the exclusion is unconscious.

I hope that the purple/orange imaginary world has started you to think about how some of the things we might think and say about our own bodies—our own body image—how that might be unconsciously creating an atmosphere of stigma that makes our spaces unwelcoming to fat people.

Other religions consider the body just a vessel for the spirit, or consider anything having to do with bodily pleasure sinful. In my opinion, both ways are wrong. We have both minds, or consciousness, which reside in our physical bodies, and we have these physical bodies that require physical things—movement, sleep, food, and water, and a safe place and means to eliminate waste. But the systems—body and mind—are interconnected. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the difficulty in controlling our thoughts and actions when food or sleep has been scarce. I hope we’ve all experienced euphoria after using our bodies for something incredibly physical such as good sex or a long run or walk. And of course, negative experiences to the body such as physical or sexual abuse, or injuries or illnesses that change your body can lead to depression and other mental and emotional issues.

I’ve come to realize that the way my body feels, and chemical signals beyond my awareness both have a strong effect on my mind. It’s more limited the other way around—I can’t “think myself thin” for example, or cure my cancer with my thoughts or prayers. But conscious effort, along with thoughtful external stimuli, can help shape the way I think about my body.

Let’s go back to the orange and purple metaphor. Imagine two purple people. One is born on a completely-purple world, where everyone is purple. The other is born on this purple and orange world. They probably think of themselves differently. The person born on an all-purple world probably thinks that their body is just their body and it’s just purple? Like a black person born in Africa, never seeing white people, that person doesn’t think of themselves as black.
But the other person—born on the purple and orange world—she grows up thinking that being purple is the worst thing anyone can be. She doesn’t ever see a purple person on her version of television, and when she does, they are an object of laughter and ridicule. Everything she sees, advertisements, newspapers, even her relatives—all they talk about is how they don’t ever want to become purple, because being purple is so unhealthy. Relatives tell her that she’ll never find anyone to love her because she’s purple, and when she walks on the street orange people yell rude things out of cars at her because they can see that she’s obviously purple and how dare she leave the house. Remember, the scientists haven’t actually found any biological difference between purple and orange people.

Maybe the reason it seems unhealthy to be purple in that world is not because it’s objectively unhealthy to be purple, but because the society has so much stigma against purple people. The stress of constantly being rejected, told that she shouldn’t have been seen in public, that purple people couldn’t do a particular job, hearing that no one could ever love a purple person, and seeing that everyone she knows never wants to be like her and is willing to take extreme measures like dangerous surgeries so that they will never become purple or so that the purple parts can be excised—wouldn’t that constant stress take a toll on her health? Is that purple person going to grow up thinking well of her purple body, love it, and take care of it?

Obviously, being fat in our world is equivalent to being purple. So how do we change our focus when all we’ve learned is that fat is bad and we should do anything to avoid becoming fat?
Earlier, I said that our mind and thoughtful external stimuli can change the way we think about our bodies. I think we change our minds by first becoming conscious of and opening our eyes to the fabric of fat stigma in our world. Only when we are aware, and we recognize that what we say, and see how it affects others, so that we can avoid perpetuating that stigma, can we begin. Then we have to surround ourselves with images of people of all sizes, colors, shapes, and ages, and learn to appreciate our bodies no matter what they look like or what they can or can’t do. That is how we change our minds.

It’s hard work, especially with the brainwashing we voluntarily undertake when we watch TV or other media. Ragen Chastain, a fat acceptance warrior, with the blog Dances with Fat, suggests the first thing is to deliberately notice what’s beautiful in other people.

I’ve done that sometimes, walking around in the office or in the elevator—I try to change my inner dialogue when I come into contact with other people. Instead of thinking “wow, she’s so beautiful, I could never be that pretty” or “I’m glad I’m not that fat”—stop comparing! I try to notice something beautiful about every person I see, and just appreciate it for what it is—the unique beauty of every person. For some people, they have a pleasing, rich skin tone, great hair, kind eyes, broad shoulders, symmetrical form. You can appreciate at least one thing about every person you meet, and it changes your perspective from always being critical of yourself and comparing yourself to others to noticing the beauty in everyone.

Then expand that appreciation to yourself. I always love the way my wrist curves when my hand is sitting on the steering wheel, so I appreciate that. I love the fact that I have defined calf muscles and I never had to do anything to get them. Those muscular calves are as much a part of my genetic inheritance as my belly and jiggly upper arms and thighs are. All of my parts deserve appreciation. My eyes are three different colors of brown and gold. I love that! Many of you know that I had a bilateral-both sides—mastectomy over ten years ago. I had reconstruction, where the surgeon took muscles from my back, brought them around to the front, and inserted implants. They’re not my old breasts, nothing ever will be. But I love my reconstructed breasts anyway because I am still amazed at the skill and artistry it took to create them—where I once had no breasts at all, the surgeon created some that even have cleavage!

If you’ve really been brainwashed and have a hard time finding just one thing you can appreciate about your own body, you can still get there. I’ve learned a lot about body acceptance from differently-abled speakers and writers. A recent podcast of On Being is with Dr. BJ Miller, who is director of a zen hospice in San Francisco, who lost both legs below the knee and an arm below the forearm to an accident his sophomore year of college. He talks here about his evolution of “coming out” as a disabled person and how he sees his legs.

The whole podcast is worth listening to, but specifically, start at about 18:00 and listen through about 24:18.

Doesn’t that change your perspective on your own body?

Another thing you can do to change the way you think about your body is to think about everything your body does for you every day, all the time, and be grateful for it. Those of us who are able-bodied, that condition is temporary. For now, our bodies breathe without thinking about it, pump gallons and gallons of blood every day, allow us to experience the beauty in the world that we can see, smell, taste, hear, and touch. Without our bodies, we wouldn’t experience a lot of the things that bring us joy.

On another On Being, Benedictine Monk Brother David Steindle-Rast said “Spirituality is aliveness on all levels. It must start with our bodily aliveness. ..if you really are grateful, come alive with your smell. Start smelling, not sightseeing, but smell-smelling, and it is wonderful. … And all this coming alive, that is spirituality. Science has discovered that when people are grateful, they come alive.”

Hundreds of years ago, it was hard for Galileo to maintain his beliefs in what he knew about the earth, despite prison and the fact that his entire society “knew” that the earth was flat. Today, we know now how wrong everyone else was about the shape of the world. The idea that we can control our body shape and size by dieting or “lifestyle changes” is what “everyone knows” today. Science has told us that things aren’t as simple as calories in/ calories out, that there are biological processes we don’t understand and can’t control by conscious effort. But capitalism and the media have a vested interest in people being unsatisfied with their bodies. It is a brave and radical act to just love our bodies as they are without trying to change them.

And this gets us to the place where we can do things for the world. Because while we’re focused on changing something that is unchangeable, we don’t have the energy or time to fight things that are more important—like gun violence, poverty, lack of good water, and all kinds of inequality. As UUs, we have an obligation to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. One’s body image is so ingrained with our sense of self that I think the best way to get to a world where all people of all body shapes, sizes, colors and abilities are respected and granted the dignity they deserve is to start with ourselves.

 

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My 2015 Year in Books

My reading goals for 2015 were to read more authors of color and LGBT authors, and to read 80 books total.   How did I do?

My total comes to 74 books, a little lower than the previous two years. I blame my smartphone, but all responsibility rests with me.  I’ve deleted Candy Crush saga and another time waster off of my phone now.

The breakdown by genre was 48 novels, 30 memoirs, and 6 nonfiction.  18 were young adult, and 16 I listened to as audiobooks.  12 could be considered historical fiction, and 10 could be considered science fiction/fantasy. One-third (25) were written by men and two-thirds  (48) by women.

Only 18 books qualify for my diversity project.  I’m disappointed, because that’s not many more than the 10 I read in 2014 without really trying.   I highly recommend, if you are white, and especially if you think you don’t understand the current issues surrounding race in this country, that you read as many books by people of color that you can. Read Between the World and Me, Twelve Years a Slave, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, if you do nothing else.   If you want to read science fiction, read anything by Octavia Butler.  If you want to read fiction about contemporary Africa and race relations in the US, read Americanah, and if you want to read fiction set at the time of Africa’s colonization, read Things Fall Apart.  I’m trying to get my daughter to read the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I’d like to work my way through all of Maya Angelou’s memoirs. I still don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color, but I’m learning a little bit by bit as I read.

I read several books related to art this year, and I’d like to continue that.  Vermeer’s Daughter, by Barbara Shoup, is a lovely young adult book told from the perspective of one of Vermeer’s nine children, and I thoroughly enjoyed Johanna, a epistolary novel told in imagined journal entries and letters.  Later in the year, I was thrilled to be in the presence of Van Gogh’s iconic self-portrait at the Chicago Art Institute, and so grateful for Johanna Van Gogh’s persistence in preserving and promoting her brother-in-law’s art.  The Lady in Gold was also fascinating and taught me much about Gustav Klimt and pre-war Vienna. I have it on my to-see movie list now.

Do you want to read something contemporary?  Try Dietland or The Girl on the Train.

Something almost-but-not-quite-dystopian?  Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. It’s the story of a teenager displaced by a nuclear accident that may have been caused by her father.

My favorite historical fiction books this year were: How to Build a Girl (1990’s Great Britain, although I hate to consider something set in the early 1990’s historical), The Sandcastle Girls (pre-WWI Armenia), The Book Thief (WWII Germany), The Dream Lover (imagining of the life of writer George Sand) and The Light in the Ruins (WWII and 1950s Italy).  I’ve become quite the Chris Bohjalian fan.  I have several of his earlier books in my stack that I’ll need to get through in 2016.

As I was listening to audiobooks this year, I realized that the exposure to different accents done by the actors who read the books affected my thinking.  For example, after listening to The Book Thief, I wanted to call people “saumensch” or “saukell” and after listening to The Help, I was thinking in a southern accent.  There has to be some scientific explanation for this?  Any ideas?

I only read a couple of classics this year.  I believe I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a child or young teenager, but I didn’t remember much.  Re-reading it, I realized that I have adopted a lot of it into my worldview.

My favorite memoirs of the year were probably Riding the Bus with My Sister (The writer spends a couple of days each month for a year with her developmentally-disabled sister riding the buses with her.  The memoir goes back and forth from their childhood to the bus project.); High Tide in Tucson (This is more a book of essays than a true memoir, but my copy is covered with post-it flags.  I will read anything Kingsolver writes. Anything.); Between the World and Me (Coates writes this memoir/essay as a letter to his 15 year old son about how he has made sense of living in a black male body, and uses the American Dream as a powerful metaphor.)

What books surprised me this year?  The Martian–I read it early in the year–way before the movie was coming out, and was hooked from the first sentence; The Rosie Project–it’s a romance written from the perspective of a scientist with Asperger’s Syndrome, and I read it in one sitting; How to Build a Girl–you have to love a book with a fat teenager who unapologetically wanks, settles for looking smug (instead of bragging) when she loses her virginity, and doesn’t end up losing weight or in a relationship.

Which leads to my favorite book of the year, and the subject of a previous post, here.  Dietland. Subversive.  Refreshing.  Fills you with outrage.  Sarai Walker wrote the book I wish I had written.

Several books had been in my pile for years: The Help, Caged Bird, Lovely Bones, Devil in White City.   I should have moved them up in priority sooner–they were all well worth reading.

In chronological order, the 2015 list:

  1. The Pursuit of Happyness, by Chris Gardner (Div)
  2. Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup (Div, Audio, C)
  3. The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (BC)
  4. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
  5. TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann (BC)
  6. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Div)
  7. So B. It, by Sarah Weeks (YA)
  8. The Martian, by Andy Weir
  9. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
  10. Crazy Salad: Some Thoughts About Women, by Nora Ephron
  11. What the Dog Saw & Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell (BC)
  12. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (C)
  13. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (C)
  14. The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion (BC)
  15. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (Div, YA)
  16. Skink: No Surrender, by Carl Hiassen (YA)
  17. Drown, by Junot Diaz (Div)
  18. Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiassen (Audio)
  19. Love Again: The Wisdom of Unexpected Romance by Eve Pell
  20. Until the Real Thing Comes Along, by Elizabeth Berg
  21. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian (BC, Audio)
  22. The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu (Div)
  23. Riding the Bus with My Sister, by Rachel Simon
  24. The Dream Lover, by Elizabeth Berg
  25. The Sandcastle Girls, by Chris Bohjalian (Audio)
  26. Born With Teeth: A Memoir, by Kate Mulgrew
  27. Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See (Div)
  28. First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allen
  29. Dietland, by Sarai Walker
  30. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler (Div)
  31. Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler (Div)
  32. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak (YA, Audio)
  33. Twelve Views from the Distance, by Mutsuo Takahashi (Div)
  34. Vermeer’s Daughter, by Barbara Shoup
  35. Johanna: A Novel of the Van Gogh family, by Claire Cooperstein (BC)
  36. The Sixty-Eight Rooms, by Marianne Malone (Audio, YA)
  37. Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry (Audio, YA)
  38. The Measure of a Man, by Sidney Poitier (Div)
  39. High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, by Barbara Kingsolver
  40. Divergent, by Veronica Roth (YA)
  41. Living With a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich
  42. Insurgent, by Veronica Roth (YA)
  43. Allegiant, by Veronica Roth (YA)
  44. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (Audio, BC)
  45. Redefining Realness, by Janet Mock (Div)
  46. Four, by Veronica Roth (YA)
  47. Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food and Family, by Sasha Martin
  48. CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooks, and About to Snap? Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, by Edward Hallowell
  49. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (Audio)
  50. A Song Flung Up to Heaven, by Maya Angelou (Audio, Div)
  51. A Year of Pleasures, by Elizabeth Berg
  52. Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood
  53. Yesterday’s Kin, by Nancy Kress
  54. How To Build a Girl, by Caitlyn Moran (BC)
  55. Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell (Audio)
  56. Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, by Chrissie Hynde (Audio)
  57. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Div)
  58. Little Pretty Things, by Lori Rader-Day
  59. Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliet (Audio)
  60. The Temple of My Familiar, by Alice Walker (Div)
  61. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (Div)
  62. Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories, by Anna Badkhen
  63. The Eight, by Katherine Neville (BC, Audio)
  64. Leaving Little Havana, by Cecelia Fernandez (Div)
  65. Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (Div, Audio)
  66. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larsen
  67. The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, by Alexander McCall Smith
  68. Happier at Home, by Gretchen Rubin
  69. The Look of Love, by Sarah Jio (BC)
  70. The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian (Audio)
  71. The Lady in Gold, by Anne Marie O’Connor
  72. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (Div)
  73. The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (YA, Audio)
  74. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

Legend: BC=Read for the library book club; Div=Qualifies for my diversity project; YA=Young adult; C=Classic.

Book Review: Dietland

I’ve been looking for Dietland by Sarai Walker since I discovered fat acceptance twenty-five years ago!

It’s the story of Plum Kettle, twentysomething fat girl writer who has limited her life to her apartment, the coffee shop where she answers work emails for the fictional teen magazine Daisy Chain, and “Waist Watchers” meetings.   At the beginning of the novel, Plum thinks that her “life isn’t real yet” because she is planning weight loss surgery and “the real me, the woman I was supposed to be, was within my reach.”

How many of us have done the same thing–limited ourselves because we perceived that we couldn’t do something we really wanted to until we lost weight?  Go to the beach? Travel to Europe? Have a child? Get that degree we wanted? Or something as simple as wearing shorts or a sleeveless top outside the house?

Plum realizes she’s being followed by a woman wearing brightly-colored tights and combat boots, and the confrontation with her follower sets in motion a series of events that cause Plum to question everything that she’s assumed about her life as a fat woman.

She meets a woman who wrote a book about the diet industry from the inside, and who runs Calliope House, a kind of feminist collective. Though she is reluctant, Plum meets women who haven’t let anyone else define their lives, despite horrific facial scarring, or being fired from their job because “Women don’t want to be you, and men don’t want to fuck you.”

While Plum is transforming herself, the world is abuzz with attacks on rapists and douchey men by an unknown “Jennifer.”  Is “Jennifer” a person?  A group?  No one knows.

I don’t want to give too much away, because you really need to read Dietland.  But Plum doesn’t lose weight OR find a man.  Hallelujah!  I love men, but it was so refreshing to read a book with a fat character who lives life on her own terms without losing weight and where the romantic “happily ever after” doesn’t happen.

On her website, Walker has included some fun extras, including a mockup of the very important Fuckability Theory and a fictional quiz from Daisy Chain that will tell you which Dietland character you are.  Of course, I’m Plum.

8 things I’ve learned from living ten years post-breast cancer

Ten years ago, on my 37th birthday, in the elevator on the way to pick up my 20-month old from daycare, the surgeon told me that “they found cancer cells,” and everything changed.

Did I imagine that I would survive and have the life I’m living now?  Did I have any idea that I would be working as an environmental lawyer for a state agency, living in a house in the suburbs, single, and with a middle-schooler who is learning to play the violin and loves detective and cop shows? Did I imagine that I’d actually write a memoir and start to take writing seriously?

I was afraid to imagine anything, afraid that my life would be snatched away and my daughter left without me, as an orphan.  I started listening to audiobooks in the car because I always started crying when I had too much time to think of the possible outcomes. All I knew was that I had to get through it.

I did get through it, through the slash, poison, and burn.  Through the “new normal.”  Through a number of boyfriends, an engagement, and then years of learning to accept my singlehood. Together, my daughter and I have made it through the terrible twos (and threes), kindergarten, elementary school, and ADHD issues for both of us.

But I am so grateful to have had these ten years.  Here’s what I think I’ve learned:

1. It takes more courage to be alone than to be trying always to meet someone.  I always thought I was being brave to put myself out there online dating and asking guys out, but dealing with rejection is easy.  There’s always someone new to distract yourself with, more profiles to scroll through, someone who may have just joined the site or walked into the bar.  What’s hard is to not have someone in your head to fantasize about, to think about what it will be like when you are together, or when the relationship takes that next step.  Not having someone in your head is the only way to truly get to know yourself, to take care of yourself.  When you’re always thinking about someone else, how do you know who you really are?

2. Flossing is important.  B.C. (Before Cancer), I was in denial and thought daily morning and haphazard bedtime brushing would be enough to keep my teeth and gums healthy. After diagnosis, I didn’t think I needed to floss at all because gingivitis is a long-term thing and so it wasn’t terribly likely I’d have to deal with it. But as the annual anniversaries started accumulating, I thought I’d add daily nighttime brushing, and then flossing.  Wow!  My mouth is happy, and so is my hygienist!

3. That restless feeling won’t kill you.  I remember feeling like I had to do something, anything, just to get out of the house.  God forbid I didn’t have plans on a Friday or Saturday night.  I would shop, or find friends to go out with. But now, it’s not that I don’t get restless.  I still do.  But I sit with it.  I pick up the notebook, write a little bit.  Or I go for a walk.  Or to the library.  Acquiring things or being with other people won’t calm my brain. My spiritual practices of reading, writing, and walking help the most.

4. Eat the ice cream.  Cravings don’t go away.  I try to practice intuitive eating, and life is too short to miss out on the pleasures of a quiet house, a good book, a soft bed with warm covers, and a bowl of Blue Bell to enjoy.

5. Don’t be afraid to question the assumptions you’ve made about yourself.  For years, I believed that I was an extrovert–I enjoyed being in front of people, talking to groups, and just interacting with other people on a regular basis.  But then I started to notice that when I walked with a friend at lunchtime, talking the entire time, I had a terrible time settling down and focusing afterwards.  I noticed how when the phone rang, sometimes I didn’t want to talk with the person on the phone, even if they were someone I cared about. I noticed how exhausted I was on days when I had multiple meetings scheduled.  It was like all of the interaction spun my brain out of control.  I tried putting my headphones on at work so I wouldn’t listen to the goings-on in the hallway and be tempted to join.  I started walking alone at lunch.  And so I honored the little girl who would rather read, alone, than do anything else.

6. Listen to your body.  There is wisdom there, whether it’s saying you need more movement or sleep or broccoli.  You just have to slow down enough to be able to feel it.

7. You can only do what you can do. Life is overwhelming, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.  We all make mistakes and don’t do things we’d committed to.  It’s OK.  Try better next time, or, don’t commit to doing so much!

8. You don’t have to say “yes” to every social opportunity offered.  This is related to #5. I used to never miss an opportunity to meet a friend for lunch, or dinner, or to do something with other people.  I still enjoy the time I spend with other people, but I’ve come to appreciate limited time as a hermit.  These days, a great Saturday is one where I walk to the park, get to the gym to lift weights, and finish a book.  My brain is clearer, and my life isn’t as frazzled.  Sometimes it’s better just to stay home and get a few things done.  It makes the week go much more smoothly when there are clean dishes and clothes, and food in the fridge on Sunday night.

Can you imagine all the wisdom I’ll be able to spout when I get to 15 or 20 years? Here’s hoping!

My 2014 in Books

I love looking at my reading trends for the past year!  At the end of 2013, I said that in 2014, I wanted to read more memoirs, and less books on writing craft.  I met those goals.  There is only one book on writing craft in the list below, and just about one-third, or 26, of the 75 books I read in 2014 were memoir (marked by an (M) in the list below).  My favorite memoirs this year were Autobiography of a Face, Truth & Beauty, LuckyBad Mother, Never Have I Ever, King PeggyOrange is the New Black, Couldn’t Keep It to Ourselves, The Road From Coorain, and Dark Star Safari, which was probably more travel than memoir but I still loved it.

Number two by the numbers were young adult or middle-grade fiction (YA), which is no surprise, because my 11-year old and I jointly read several from this category as audiobooks during long car trips.  And I read a couple she was reading for school. I especially loved The Witch of Blackberry Pond, Fever 1793, and Among the Hidden, but Hoosier writer Barbara Shoup’s Stranded in Harmony and Wish You Were Here were also great reads, written from the perspectives of almost-adult high school boys.

At least 7 books on my list were from my library book club (BK), 7 were historical fiction based on real events or people (HF), and 5 could be or are considered classics (C).  The list is rounded out with a smattering of nonfiction, mystery, popular fiction, and a graphic novel.

Recently, I came across a blogger who wanted to read books that year that were only written by non-white authors.  Because I think that reading fiction and memoir is one of the best ways that we can step into another person’s shoes and have some glimmer of what they experience, I thought that was a great idea.  So I decided to evaluate my list.  Without the specific intention to read authors of color, 10 of my 75 books in 2014 fell into that category: Clay’s Ark, This is How You Lose Her, Love, King Peggy, Couldn’t Keep It To Myself (many of the individual pieces were written by African-American or Hispanic women), The Gift of Rain, The Good Lord Bird, Miracle at St. Anna, Does My Head Look Big in This?, and Behind the Scenes at the Lincoln White House.  Another 6 had a primary story line that dealt with cross-race or ethnic relations or tensions: Strength in What Remains, Dark Star Safari, Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening, Kissing Outside the Lines, The Invention of Wings, and The Water is Wide.  I can still do better, but I thought it was a respectable start.

So what is the gender breakdown?  44 books written by women and 31 by men.  I’m not surprised by that, but if it weren’t for Michael Chabon and Carl Hiassen I would have only read 24 books written by men.  I don’t think I read any books written by a transgender person, or by someone who identifies as gay or lesbian in 2014.  I’ll have to make an effort to change that next year.

I love, love, love the new Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling mysteries featuring Private Investigator Cormoran Strike.  Carl Hiassen and Janet Evanovich reliably make me laugh, and I have a huge crush on Michael Chabon.  I am in awe of Sue Monk Kidd.  She wrote my number-one book of the year: The Invention of Wings.  If you like historical fiction at all, don’t pass it up.  She tells the stories of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, real South Carolina women in the early to mid-1800’s who were feminists and abolitionists before Elizabeth Cady Stanton and John Brown.  She weaves in the fictional story of Sarah’s slave, Handful, who was given to Sarah as an 11th birthday present. The result is fascinating, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

I am amazed when I read Willkie Collins and Charles Dickens how well their novels stand the test of time, and only wish more women and minority authors had been published then so we would have their wisdom and insight now, too.

I was most surprised that I liked Point of Impact.  It was a book club selection, and the story line centered on snipers, guns, and FBI/CIA conspiracies.  I didn’t have high hopes when it was passed out. There were only two female characters in the entire book!  But I couldn’t put it down.  I liked the main characters and wanted to see them win.

My goals for 2015? More authors of color, some LGBT authors, less young adult, more new authors.  Maybe a little less memoir, but not too much.  And I’d like to read 80 books by the end of 2015.

  1. Cherry, by Mary Karr (M)
  2. Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy (M)
  3. Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiassen
  4. Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett (M)
  5. Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich
  6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (C)
  7. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare (YA)
  8. The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  9. Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City, by Eric Toensmeier (M)
  10. The Water is Wide, by Pat Conroy (M)
  11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (HF)
  12. Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder
  13. The Woman in White, by Willkie Collins (C)
  14. The Boy on the Bus, by Deborah Schupack (BK)
  15. Clay’s Ark, by Octavia Butler
  16. Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, by Anne Lamott
  17. Destroyer Angel, by Nevada Barr
  18. Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon (M)
  19. Lucky, by Alice Sebold (M)
  20. Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food & Money, by Geneen Roth (M)
  21. Lift, by Kelly Corrigan (M)
  22. Walden on Wheels, by Ken Ilgunas (M)
  23. So Big by Edna Ferber (C)
  24. The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (HF)
  25. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, by Michael Chabon
  26. This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
  27. Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA)
  28. Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, by Ayelet Waldman (M)
  29. Behind the Scenes at the Lincoln White House, by Elizabeth Keckley (C)
  30. The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, by Michael Chabon
  31. Storm Front, by Richard Castle (BK)
  32. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure, by Rachel Friedman (M)
  33. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov (M)
  34. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi
  35. Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner
  36. King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman (M)
  37. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, by Piper Kerman (M)
  38. Top Secret Twenty One, by Janet Evanovich
  39. Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion, and Romantic Obsession, by Rosemary Sullivan
  40. I Love You, Miss Huddleston, by Philip Gulley (M)
  41. Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love & Race & Happily Ever After, by Diane Farr (M)
  42. Love, by Toni Morrison
  43. Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters, edited by Wally Lamb, by the women of the York Correctional Institution (M)
  44. The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  45. Wish You Were Here, by Barbara Shoup (YA)
  46. Paris in Love, by Eloisa James (M)
  47. The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng (HF) (BK)
  48. Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening, by Carol Wall (M)
  49. Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix (YA)
  50. Stranded in Harmony, by Barbara Shoup (YA)
  51. Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (YA)
  52. All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner
  53. One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, by Lauren Sandler (M)
  54. Point of Impact, by Stephen Hunter (BK)
  55. Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, by Katie Heaney (M)
  56. Bossypants, by Tina Fey (M)
  57. Flush, by Carl Hiassen (YA)
  58. Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue (HF)
  59. The Giver, by Lois Lowry (YA)
  60. The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell
  61. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (HF)
  62. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green (YA)
  63. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (YA) (BK)
  64. The Road From Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway (M)
  65. Basket Case, by Carl Hiassen
  66. Favorite Dog Stories, by James Herriott (M)
  67. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux (M)
  68. The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (YA)
  69. Miracle at St. Anna, by James McBride (HF)
  70. Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance & Forgiveness, by Tracy Kidder
  71. The Vanishing Violin, by MIchael D. Beil (YA)
  72. Still Foolin ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell are My Keys? by Billy Crystal (M) (BK)
  73. I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War, by Jerome Charyn (HF)
  74. Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens (C)
  75. The Hoarder In You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life, by Dr. Robin Zasio

 

2014 Writing Project Done!

In May 2013, I was journaling religiously every day, and sporadically working on a book.  I wasn’t sure if it was going to be historical fiction based upon the life of my grandmother, or a memoir, or some combination of family history memoir and my own memoir.

I made the decision then that I would get the book done by the end of 2014.  Done.  I gave myself a year and a half.

Shortly after that decision, my job changed significantly, and eventually got a lot more stressful. I still enjoy it, but it takes up a lot more space in my head, that I had been using for writing.  A year-long search committee at my church also started then, which was extremely rewarding, but also took up tIme I had been using for writing.

In August 2013 my daughter and I both got smartphones.  Everything was at my fingertips!  Instead of my notebook being the first thing I touched when I woke up, it was now the phone.  And Facebook and Pinterest beckoned.

I stopped journaling daily, but I still made time occasionally to work on the book.  I had set that deadline, after all.  By the late fall, I realized that I had to make a schedule so that I had intermediate deadlines and could finish when I said that I would.  And it needed to be a memoir so that I could work out my own stuff before I tried a novel.

I changed the schedule multiple times, but I did it.

It’s January 1, 2015, and I have 246 double-spaced, typewritten pages of a memoir.  93,976 words.

It’s mostly a history of my relationships with boys and men, from my early crushes, to my marriage, divorce, and later boyfriends and fiance.  I online-dated, off and on, from 1999 to 2007. But I also went to college, taught high school, switched careers when I was 23, went to law school, switched careers again at 31, decided to and became a single mom by choice, and in quick succession in 2005 was fired from my job and diagnosed with breast cancer with a not-yet-two year old.

I’m going to take a few weeks off from thinking about my next steps with the memoir, and then I will print it out and see what happens with it next.  Stay tuned for my 2014 in books!

Writing Project 2014 Update



Sometime in late 2013, while I was figuring out what step to take next in my writing, I decided to take parts of a memoir I had started, and make a second draft.  Taking Seth Godin’s advice, I set a “shipping date” of December 31, 2014.

I figured out a process for each chapter, and set a schedule.

Life intervened, and work has become much more stressful over the past year.  I don’t have as much space in my head or energy for writing these days. But I have been plugging along when I can.

The schedule has been changed several times, but I am happy to report that I have one chapter left to edit, and it is only 8 typed pages.  And eighteen days left to finish!