My 2016 Year in Books

Time for the annual year-end reading post!

I read 76 books total, about the same as last year.  I was not successful in surpassing 80 because of the smartphone.  27 books qualify for my diversity book project because they were written by someone non-white and/or non-straight.  That’s a lot better than 2015; fully one-third of what I read in 2016 fit into the diversity category. The different types (including some overlap) were: 13 memoir; 47 fiction; 18 other non-fiction; 4 young adult/middle grade; 19 historical fiction; 3 fantasy-science fiction; 6 that could be considered classics.  I read 46 books written by women authors, 28 by men, and 2 by transpersons.

Some themes I noticed were that I read several books about the trends in women remaining single, which makes sense since 2016 was the anniversary for me of five years of deliberately not dating.  (Dating again may be the topic of a future post!)  I backed way off of writing craft and creativity books, but I didn’t do much in the way of creative writing, either, so maybe regularly reading books about writing helps to keep me inspired to keep writing.

I can’t say that I have a single favorite book of 2016, but there were several that I really loved, with a quick synopsis of each:

  • Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.  These are companion books; not quite sequels, but they have many of the same characters and same settings.  Life After Life is the story of Ursula, a young girl in Great Britain on the eve of the first world war.  It seems that she has many opportunities to get things right, from a Buddhist perspective, and the book goes back and forth in time.  It may be a little confusing to follow at first, but it’s lovely and heartbreaking and the characters stay with you for a long time.  A God in Ruins tells the story of Ursula’s brother Ted, a bomber pilot during World War II, and his family.  They are different books, but both satisfying in their own way.
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.  The story of an almost-spinster botanist scholar of mosses in the 1800s doesn’t seem like it would be that exciting, but Alma Whitaker got into my heart and stayed there.  Great historical detail, feminist story, spirituality infused throughout, including quite a bit of sex–this book has it all.  I absolutely loved it.
  • The Hummingbird by Stephen Kiernan.  Combine a hospice social worker with a Iraq war veteran-wounded husband and a disgraced terminally ill professor who seems to have researched a too-incredible story and you have The Hummingbird.  It’s fascinating and hopeful, even though you know that someone dies at the end.
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.   This is young adult romance, set in the 1980s, but it also deals with serious themes such as domestic violence, interracial romance, fat acceptance, and bullying.  It is so well-done!  I wanted the story to keep going, and so we can always hope for a sequel.  I’ve read some criticism that it contributes to the fetishization of Asian folks, so it’s not perfect, but I loved the fact that the main female character is a fat teenager and her size isn’t a primary part of the story line.  It’s who she is, and she finds love anyway.
  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.  Another young adult coming of age novel, along with a romance for the main character who doesn’t realize he’s falling in love with another boy.  I loved the dialogue and the fact that some of the story was told via letters from Dante to Ari.
  • Wonder, by P.J. Palacio.  Another young adult novel, read by my daughter in school. It’s the story of a boy with severe facial deformities who is starting 5th grade after being homeschooled his entire life.  Again, very well done and so glad to know that my daughter is reading this kind of book in school.
  • The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin.  These are the first two books of an unfinished trilogy, set in a possible-future earth that is plagued by frequent earthquakes and “seasons” where volcanic ash obscures the sun for a long time. But oragenes–persons born with the power to control the quakes–are feared, hated, and necessary for the future of humanity. It’s a fascinating look at oppressed people and systems of power.  I couldn’t put them down and am anxiously awaiting the final installment.
  • The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton.  A 14-year old boy comes of age in a small town in Kentucky affected by mountaintop removal mining, after witnessing a horrific accident that killed his 3-year old brother.  It sounds grim, but it is beautifully written and has a good ending.  It surprises you as you read it–you think it’s going to be a standard coming of age novel, but turns into quite a mystery-thriller. It has environmental, LGBT, and race relations themes, and a philosopher-grandfather whose every other word I wanted to write down.  Highly recommend.

I read a lot of African American classic nonfiction and fiction this year.  I don’t think I’ve completely processed my feelings about all that I’ve read, except that I am certain that we as a country have a lot more work to do to resolve our race issues.  I said it last year, and I’ll say it again.  If you are white, and read, and want to understand race in the United States, you have a duty to read as many books written by authors of color that you can.  Books written by white folks about people of color don’t count.  I cannot claim to know what it’s like to live as a black person in the United States.  But I learned a lot in 2016 from W.E.B. DuBois, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Walker, Mychal Denzel Smith, N.K. Jemisin, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Michelle Alexander, and Jesmyn Ward.  I encourage all of my white friends to do the same.

Goals for next year:  I’d like to read at least 80 books, at least one-third (27) meeting the diversity qualification. I’d like to maybe read fewer nonfiction, more memoir and writing/creativity books. I’d also like to do some more analysis of the portrayal of fat women in the fiction that I read, with the goal of reading more authors who portray fat women in a positive light.  So I will probably be keeping some kind of record of that, as well.  Happy New Year of Reading!

The 2016 list, in order of reading:

  1. The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin (NF)
  2. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (F, BC)
  3. Towelhead, by Alicia Erian (F, Div)
  4. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (NF)
  5. The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois (NF, Div, Classic)
  6. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (F, Hist)
  7. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith/ J.K. Rowling (F)
  8. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (F, Div)
  9. Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams (Mem, Div)
  10. My Brilliant Friend, by Elana Ferrante (F, Hist)
  11. Native Tongue, by Carl Hiassen (F)
  12. The Beautiful Struggle, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Mem, Div)
  13. The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold (F)
  14. The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (F, Hist)
  15. The Birth House by Ami McCay (F, Hist, BC)
  16. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (F, Hist, Div)
  17. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr (NF)
  18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (F, Hist, Div)
  19. Big Magic: Creative Lving Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (NF)
  20. The Return of Simple by Langston Hughes (F, Div)
  21. The Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling (Mem)
  22. Lit by Mary Karr (Mem)
  23. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (F, BC)
  24. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (F, Hist)
  25. The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay (F, Hist, BC)
  26. Minecraft: The Unlikely Tale of Markus “Notch” Persson and the Game that Changed Everything by Linus Larsson and Daniel Goldberg, translated by Jennifer Hawkins (NF)
  27. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston Mem, Div)
  28. The Signature of All Things  by Elizabeth Gilbert (F, Hist)
  29. Your Heart is a Muscle The Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa (F, Hist)
  30. The Story of a New Name, by Elana Ferrante (F, Hist)
  31. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elana Ferrante (F, Hist)
  32. The Story of the Lost Child, by Elana Ferrante (F, Hist)
  33. Stop-Time by Frank Conroy (Mem)
  34. Boar Island by Nevada Barr (F)
  35. The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian (F)
  36. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (F, Div)
  37. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (NF, Div)
  38. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister (NF)
  39. The Hummingbird by Stephen Kiernan (F, BC)
  40. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick (Mem, NF)
  41. Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Hunt (NF)
  42. The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore (F, Div)
  43. A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein (Mem, Div)
  44. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (F, YA, Hist)
  45. Here if You Need Me: A True Story by Kate Braestrup (Mem)
  46. Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride (NF, Div)
  47. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie (F, Hist, BC)
  48. Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living by Jes Baker (NF, Mem)
  49. The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children by Shefali Tsabary (NF, Div)
  50. Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education by Mychal Denzel Smith (Mem, Div)
  51. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (F, YA, Div)
  52. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane (F)
  53. Native Son by Richard Wright (F, Div, Classic)
  54. Wonder by Raquel J. Palacio (F, YA, Div)
  55. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (F)
  56. James Baldwin: A Biography by David Leeming (NF)
  57. The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic by Ginger Strand (NF, BC)
  58. I am Malala  by Malala Yousafzi (Mem, Div)
  59. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (F, SF-Fantasy, Div)
  60. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin (F, SF-Fantasy, Div)
  61. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald (F, BC)
  62. The Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters (F)
  63. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (F)
  64. Waiting  by Ha Jin (F, Hist, Div)
  65. Three Men in a Boat; to Say Nothing of the Dog by Jerome K. Jerome (F, BC, Classic)
  66. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (NF, Div)
  67. The Littlest Bigfoot by Jennifer Weiner (F, YA)
  68. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett (NF)
  69. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (F, Hist, Classic)
  70. Monastery of Writers by Abe Aamidor (F)
  71. Go Tell It On the Mountain  by James Baldwin (F, Div, Classic)
  72. Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing by Jennifer Weiner (Mem)
  73. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (F, Div, Classic)
  74. LaRose by Louise Erdrich (F, Hist, Div)
  75. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton (F)
  76. The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward (NF, Mem, Div)

Care Instructions

I’ve started yoga this year with my daughter, and have found some great fat yoga teachers online, specifically Amber at Body Positive Yoga and Anna at Curvy Yoga.  I subscribed to Anna’s email list, and I so enjoyed her post about her own care instructions that I was inspired to create my own.

April’s Care Instructions

Make sure to read, write, and walk at least every other day.  Doing all three every day is optimal.  Eat meals regularly, and don’t forget the broccoli and kale, because you will crave them if it’s been too long since you’ve had any.  Don’t forget to have hot or iced tea every morning, because you need the caffeine.  You can have another caffeinated drink with lunch if you really need it, but don’t overdo it because too much caffeine feeds the chattering extrovert.

If you’ve had a lot of meetings during the day, make time to do some yoga, take a walk, or relax alone before making dinner.  You really do need to get to the gym to lift weights twice a week.  You need to create those endorphins for your mental health–don’t persuade yourself that you don’t. If you’re going to schedule being out in the evening, try not to be out more than two evenings in a row, or you are likely to melt down and ignore everything in favor of an introvert hibernation / pajama day as soon as you can.  Take the time to have an orgasm at least once a week (falling asleep on yourself before you’re done doesn’t count!), and get to bed by 10 pm most nights.

Be sure to create often–write, crochet, or cook something new.  Limit the time on your phone scrolling through the news and your feed.  Try not to look at Facebook unless you’re standing up, otherwise you may hyperfocus and be stuck scrolling and reading for an hour or longer, and there are better things to do with your time, like writing or reading an actual book.  If your daughter persuades you to watch TV with her, don’t watch more than 2 shows in a row without getting up off of the couch.

If you feel scattered or restless, it’s OK–it won’t hurt you to feel those things.  But take a walk or sit down with a pen and open up your journal.  Even if you just write down the random thoughts going through your head, there is value in getting them out of there and onto paper.

Be gentle with yourself, and as kind as you would be with your best friends.  You’re doing the best that you can, and that’s good enough.

The Fear of Being Derivative and of Not Fitting In

I (obviously) haven’t been blogging much. What I told myself was that I was afraid to put anything out there that was too much like the writing that some of the big-name fat activists, like Ragen Chastain and Virgie Tovar are writing.

Almost a year ago, I emailed Ragen some photos for a video montage (I’m at :42, 1:07, and 2:59) and thanked her for giving me the words to say what I want to say about fat acceptance and fat civil rights. But I also I told her that I was afraid to blog too much for “fear of being too derivative.”  Ragen encouraged me to blog, even if I said the same thing as she does, in my own words.

So what’s this fear?  The fear of sounding like everyone else?  Of not having anything original to say?  The fear of being derivative doesn’t even come up in Google suggestions for “fear of being  d . . . ” The actual fear of not being or sounding original only shows up once in the top ten websites in a Google search of “fear of being derivative.”

To flesh out the fear a little more, I feel like I don’t have anything original to say.  I read books and online constantly, so I’m afraid to start writing because I feel like I’ll just be parroting back something that I’ve read–not something that I’ve thought of myself.  And then I think that even if what I say isn’t quite the same, do I need to be writing if I’m almost like someone else?

But isn’t everything derivative?  Isn’t there only one universal Hero’s Journey?   How do you get over the fear of sounding like everyone else?

So I did what I always do:  Look for answers in a book.  In Bird by Bird: Some Thoughts on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott acknowledges that her students often take on someone else’s style, that another author’s style is “a prop that you use for a while until you have to give it back.  And it just might take you to the thing that is not on loan, the thing that is real and true: your own voice.”  She says that “the great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within.”

And then it hit me: My “cold, dark place within” is the fear of not belonging, of not being like everyone else.  I’ve found myself taking great pains to try to fit in, and I even created an extrovert, at odds with my bookwormish and somewhat socially-anxious self, to attempt to fit in.  As a fat woman, I’ve been subject to appearance-based stigma for just about my entire life. Last to be picked on teams, never had a date in high school, blah, blah, blah.  The world tells me I don’t fit in when chairs or desks are too small or I can’t find clothes to fit me.  The fear of not fitting in is probably one of the most universal fears, but for those of us who are fat, it’s not just a fear. It’s a reality.

But if not fitting in is my big fear, then how can I also at the same time fear being derivative, which is being just like everyone else?

Having both of these fears at the same time is completely irrational.

Seth Godin calls it the resistance–that fear that tells us to go slow, to compromise, that creates writer’s block.  I realized that that’s what my fear of being derivative is–the resistance has been winning for too long.

No more.

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.

 

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!