Category Archives: Reading

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.


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


Katie Heaney’s Memoir and My (Still Unfinished) Memoir

Katie Heaney wrote and published a memoir, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, before she turned thirty. Some people find that tedious, but I found it inspiring. See, Katie’s story is interesting because she has been single for her entire life. Yet she is heterosexual, and for most of her twenty-five years “there has been at least one boy [she] was thinking about and hoping to date, in the abstract….[and] there has been a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind more often than there hasn’t been.”

I wish someone my age had written this kind of memoir when I was in college, and that I had found it then.  I have twenty years on Katie, but I get her completely.  The writing that I’ve been doing is similar in scope and theme to her memoir.  She wrote about every crush from grade school forward, describing her experiences with boys and lack thereof.  I’m writing about every relationship, however ill-advised or doomed, to try to figure out why I’ve felt the need to do what Katie has done–have a specific theoretical boyfriend in mind most of the time–or go even further– have an actual boyfriend or husband a good portion of the time.

It’s funny how the image we have of ourselves when we are teenagers never seems to go away completely, or is really hard to change.  I was the boy-crazy one, the fat girl who was always chasing someone but never catching anyone.  Like Katie, I didn’t date anyone in high school, but in my case, it wasn’t for the lack of trying.  Many things came together so that it never happened for me.  And when it did happen, I wasn’t very picky about who was interested, how I really felt about him, and how he treated me.  That came much later.

Katie got to an “end to the era in my life when I might have felt the need to do something for the first time to get it over with” and ended up writing the book as a twenty-five year old who hasn’t had sex.  She refers to Tina Fey saying that she was twenty-four when she had sex for the first time because she “couldn’t give it away.”  I may not have had the exact same experiences, but I know the feelings.

Why am I writing and thinking about this now, more than twenty years later?  I’ve been deliberately single for more than three years.  This is the longest period of time since college that I haven’t been in a relationship or trying to get into a relationship.  I still think about men often, both specific men I might like to date and in general when I see them out and about.  But at the same time, being with someone after three years of not being with anyone makes it all seem theoretical, like it happened in another life to another person.  And I have a hard time imagining how a man would fit into my life with everything I have going on such as work, raising my daughter, my family and friends, and the things I want to do, like reading and writing.

But I’ve also realized that I’m writing about my sordid past relationships because I’m trying to change the story I tell myself about myself.  I’m not that fat girl who couldn’t get a date any more.  I have dated and married and divorced and broken up and been broken up with.  I’ve got almost two hundred pages with all of the gory details.  Katie’s memoir spoke to me because she has realized a lot of the same things I’m trying to, without the twenty-five-year detour.  That’s why I wish her book had been available to me when I was in college.

The status of a relationship, whether I am in one or not, or dating or not, does not define me.  Katie writes, about dating: “Why would I want to go out to dinner and a movie with someone I’m not completely crazy about when I already know how much I like eating dinner and watching a movie by myself?”  When a friend finally recovers from a bad breakup, she does so partly by realizing that “she could do whatever she wanted, work wherever she wanted, and live wherever she wanted…she didn’t have to think about anyone else’s goals or desires and then try to make them work with her own…It’s not that she wouldn’t do those things.  It’s just that she didn’t HAVE to. She could live for herself and herself alone.”  Katie realizes that her friend never felt this freedom before, but that it was “the same freedom I’ve always had, for my whole entire life.”

Last night, Friday night, there were two other possible things I could have done instead of what I did.  A female friend had an extra ticket to a gala that would have been so much fun, to get dressed up and go downtown to a fancy ballroom and people-watch.  And an online friend was in town with her husband and wanted to try to meet for dinner.  Either would have been enjoyable.  But my daughter isn’t old enough to stay home in the evening by herself, babysitting is expensive, and I am using a lot of my childcare “credits” with friends right now because of a two-week fall break.  So I didn’t do either thing.  Instead, after work, I changed into my sweatpants, made pizza from scratch, and then my daughter and I watched The Voice episodes we had DVR’d from the week, while I knitted a scarf I owe for a charity auction.  Then she went to bed and I read for a blissful hour of peace and quiet.  I don’t know how dating would fit into all this, and that’s all right.  Like Katie, I am “sure of who I am and what I want (and don’t want) in other people.”  I can take wisdom from anywhere, even from a tall, awkward girl twenty years younger than me.  Thanks, Katie.


January Reading

I decided that I liked my year-end reading posts so much that I would try to do them at the end of every month, so I could write more deeply about some of the books that I loved.

Here’s the January list:

Cherry by Mary Karr
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Bad Monkey by Carl Hiassen
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich

I had to balance the three serious memoirs with some very light fiction. It seems like I didn’t read much this month, but I have several other books in-progress that should be finished within the next week.  I’m also terribly addicted to Facebook on my phone during times I would otherwise be reading, such as right before bed.  I can see right now that if I want to keep up last year’s reading pace, I’ll need to stop that.

Cherry is the sequel, of sorts, to Karr’s The Liar’s Club.  It’s very different–for most of it, she uses the second-person “you” perspective, which I never quite got used to.  I think it can be effective in small doses, but I didn’t really like it when it comprised most of the book.  Despite the issues I had with the book, there were some great lines:

“The more real the threat of her absence became, the more I felt all the bolts and lug nuts of who I was loosen.” (about her mother’s inconsistent presence during that time in her life)

“I instinctively knew the rules laid down for girls’ comportment, but I wasn’t yet resigned to them, for to place my head into that yoke was to part with too much freedom.”

” . . . he provides escort, his gaze on you certifying your romantic and sexual worth (the only value girls seem to have in that time and place.” (about her first boyfriend)

Despite the great lines, between the second-person perspective and the drugs, it wasn’t my favorite book.  I often have a problem with drug scenes in movies and books, and Carr did a lot of drugs during the time she describes in this memoir.

The second and third memoirs I read this month, Autobiography of a Face and Truth and Beauty, are related, although I wasn’t aware of the existence of Truth and Beauty when I started Autobiography, which has been sitting on my to-read stack for probably a year.  It’s a classic memoir, on many reading lists, published in 1994.  Lucy Grealy had bone cancer in her jaw when she was nine years old, which caused her to have to have several years of chemotherapy and radiation, and left her with part of her jaw missing before she started junior high school.

It is a beautiful memoir.  I could so identify with the way she wrote about not fitting in, about the teasing, about the longing for a relationship.  “If only I could get someone to have sex with me, it would mean that I was attractive, that someone could love me. . . .The longing for someone and the fear that there would never be anyone intermingled to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference.”  I don’t feel that way now, but she described perfectly the way I felt in high school and college.

The end of the memoir is hopeful.  She wrote: “There I was with my short skirts and sharp mind and list of lovers, trying so hard to convince myself that maybe all I really needed to do was learn how to treat myself better. I was on the verge of learning this, yet I was still so suspicious, so certain that only another’s love could prove my worth absolutely.”

Unfortunately, when I looked to see what Lucy Grealy was doing now, hoping that she had found love, or at least peace about not having it, I found that she died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2002.  And then I found out that her friend, the writer Ann Patchett, had written a memoir about their friendship, which was Truth and Beauty.  So I immediately reserved the book at my library and picked it up the next day.  Lucy was such a compelling person, and Ann had chronicled their friendship so well that I gulped it down.

Ann Patchett thought that Lucy never got over her need, her obsession to be in a relationship.  One of Lucy’s favorite questions, one friends and I have also asked, was “Will I ever have sex again?”  Patchett has been criticized for her frank portrayal of how some women talk about sex–but I applaud her.  I think she got it just right.  Several years ago, the Red Ravine blog posted an in-depth discussion of the two books, so I won’t repeat it here, but I will quote that blog author when she wrote that “I came to the conclusion that writing memoir is the most courageous and risky kind of writing one can undertake.”  I’m so glad that both authors had the courage to write these memoirs.

Finally, if you’ve never read Carl Hiassen and need a good laugh, try him!  He is gifted in creating outlandish characters and then setting a scheme in motion that will have them all in the same place at the same time, interacting as only they can.  I suppose he and Janet Evanovich have that in common, although Evanovich’s characters reappear from book to book, and Hiassen’s usually don’t.  Takedown Twenty is one of the better of the higher-numbered Stephanie Plum novels.  I think they were great in the beginning, but have been formulaic recently.  This one was a day’s read for me, and worth it if you are a fan.

What I read in 2013 and what I want to read in 2014

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Stephen King, On Writing

Ever since I read On Writing in 2008, I have taken Stephen King’s words to heart.  He admitted that he reads 70 to 80 books a year, so that has been my goal.  In 2013, I read 85 books, 12 more than in 2012.

When I analyzed the books I read in 2013, the numbers came out generally like this:

  • 20-25 Memoir/ Autobiography
  • 35+ Novels, including 7 “Classics” and 3 Childrens/Young Adult
  • 10-12 Writing Craft
  • 10-15 Nonfiction (including self-help, history, but not writing craft or creativity)

I loved the classics that I read, especially Pride and Prejudice, The Moonstone, Girl of the Limberlost, Hard Times, and Tom Sawyer.  Most of them I read on audiobook through LibriVox, through which volunteers read, record, and make available free public domain audiobooks.  In that future life in which I will have enough time to volunteer for all of the things I want to do, I would love to contribute my own reading and recording.

I read a lot of memoirs in 2013, primarily because I realized that the writing I have done and want to shape into a book is really a memoir, so I’ve been studying the form.  I still have a lot to do, but I’ve read many great examples that also include family history, including: What We Have, Missing Lucile, Nola, Ava’s Man, and The Lost.  I loved to read about Sonia Sotomayor in My Beloved World and Marcus Samuellson in Yes Chef, although I’m sure both books were ghostwritten.  To me, that didn’t diminish their journeys.  Other books were a combination of memoir and nonfiction, such as Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Wolf’s Vagina, and Pollan’s Cooked.  Each provided insights that I hadn’t considered.  I want to read just as many memoirs in 2014, and I have plenty of lists to start with.

When I compiled the 2013 list, what surprised me was how many books on writing craft I read.  I realized that it’s much easier for me to read about writing than to actually write.  So I think the reason I read all the writing craft books was avoidance.  Don’t get me wrong, many were very useful, especially the ones about plot, journaling, and memoir writing.  I learned a lot about how I need to shape my material.  And The Icarus Deception, by Seth Godin, was life-changing and paradigm-shifting. Although it isn’t about writing per se, it’s about creating art, so I included it in this list.    In 2014, I want to read less about writing, and write more.  

Fiction.  A portion of the novels I read were for my library book club:  Defending Jacob, An American Tune, Blue Asylum, Goldberg Variations, Cup of Gold, Devil’s Trill, Goodbye for Now, and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Most of those were books I probably wouldn’t have picked up myself, and I continue to treasure the opportunity to expand my book horizons and discuss them with other book lovers.

My favorite novels of the year were probably An American Tune (Barbara Shoup’s novel set in Bloomington and MIchigan between 1969 and the recent past); The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (what happens fifty years later if Alaska had become a Jewish protectorate in WWII, minimizing the effect of the Holocaust?); The Last Days of Dogtown (outcasts and forbidden love in the early 1800’s, including all of the savagery and cruelty of the time); MaddAddam (Atwood’s final book of the dystopian future trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood); and Kindred (written in the late 1970’s, Butler wrote about slavery and time travel that seems to combine aspects of the later Beloved and The Time Traveler’s Wife).

Novels that had an interesting twist:  Defending Jacob, Goodbye For Now, Gone Girl, and The Perfect Ghost.  I enjoyed the surprises each of these books gave me.

I’ve realized that I like a lot of books.  There aren’t very many I don’t care for.  There were only two this year that I can say I wish I hadn’t read:  Cup of Gold and The Lost Get-Back Boogie.  Cup of Gold was one of Steinbeck’s early books, and I didn’t care for the sexism and conquer-the-natives exploits of Captain Morgan.  The book was well-written, and kept me interested in finding out what happened, but I didn’t like what was happening.  Boogie was also well-written, but I had anticipated that it would be a mystery.  Instead, it was a crime novel, tracing the activities of an ex-con and his drugged-out friend.  It wasn’t what I expected, and I don’t care for drug scenes in movies or books.   (Years ago, I started but couldn’t continue with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces for that reason.)

Although I can’t say I wish I hadn’t read them, I continue to read Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, but just for the pure entertainment.  I don’t expect the characters to say anything profound or come to life-changing realizations when I read this series.  Although they were great mysteries in the beginning, they’ve become formulaic and I’d just like her to pick between Ranger and Morelli, finally!

My wish for 2014 comes from Seth Godin, from The Icarus Deception:

Sometimes, courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say.

I hope what I read in 2014 helps me to speak my truth and that you are able to do the same.

Shadow on a Tightrope

I came of age in the 1980s. When Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression was published in 1983, I was fifteen years old. I was a smart, bookish, self-conscious young fat woman who had spent nine years in Catholic school, and whose biggest desire was to be swept off of her feet by a boy and live happily ever after.

My size acceptance journey started a few years later, with Big Beautiful Woman Magazine. I have spent most of the ensuing years struggling with relationships, with what I wanted to do with my life, and with circumstances beyond my control. I’m giving up the struggle, and am learning how to just be and to do things that make me happy.

I didn’t read Shadow on a Tightrope until Marilyn Wann (author of Fat? So!) suggested on Facebook a month or two ago a blog carnival for its thirtieth anniversary. Who knows why I didn’t read it before – maybe I was just finally ready.

I record each book I read in a book journal, so post-it note flags are a necessary companion to most books. I mark beautiful sentences or quotes that I want to remember as relevant to my life.

This is what Shadow on a Tightrope looked like when I was done:

photo (1)

I found something to relate to in just about every piece in Shadow on a Tightrope. Thirty years ago, the contributors expressed ideas and told truths that have been rolling around in my brain, difficult to admit and express. Each quote could spawn its own post.

We believe that our bodies’ sizes are chosen and reflect personal control and we ignore or reject all evidence that contradicts this belief…If you are fat, you can choose to count calories or grams of carbohydrates….the range of choices hides the fact that you are compelled to choose. As for the choices themselves, no matter which you choose you are choosing pain through hunger. If therefore you choose to reject all reducing options, you are punished with ridicule and social rejection.”

The Fat Illusion, Vivian F. Mayer

Growing up in the 1970s, the social rejection was real but never acknowledged. My mother remembers how, on the cusp of womanhood, I came home from school crying every day one year.

Women are divided into those who fear getting fat and those who are ashamed of being fat….[Thin women] are rewarded with male approval and with permission to feel superior to fat women.”

The Fat Illusion, Vivian F. Mayer

We used to have only these options. Now, thanks in part to these brave writers, fat acceptance is a third option.

Like the pressures to marry and bear children, the universal, self-styled concen for fat women’s health is rooted in the axiom that every female’s first desire is to attract males.”

Some Thoughts on Fat, Joan Dickerson

It took reading The Feminine Mystique recently for me to realize how ingrained this cultural conditioning is. And the expectations to be partnered and to be thin are intertwined. Fat, single women who bear children outside of marriage rebel against all of these expectations.

Society punishes fat men and women by taking their sexuality away. Fat women are punished most severely. For, in a society where women are chiefly sex objects, a woman’s sexuality is really all that she has to bargain with in the first place.”

Fat Women and Women’s Fear of Fat, Lynn Mabel-Lois and Aldebaran

I realized a while ago that one of the reasons I became a lawyer is because people listen to lawyers. Despite all of the jokes about greedy, unethical lawyers, you still call a lawyer when you are in real trouble. If I couldn’t be desired as a woman, I would have respect from being at least a decent lawyer.

I want to be held but have no lover, and when I have no lover I don’t feel loved. Even though I know I’m loved by friends, I don’t feel loved . . . I tell myself it’s not true. My friends love me. I am lovable even if I’m alone in bed.”

A Day in My Life, Judy Freespirit

I have felt like Judy Freespirit often, but I have been trying to get past it, as I wrote here.

Dieting, not unlike foot-binding, is a male-created institution which obsesses, weakens, sickens, and kills womyn; enforces class oppression and the assimilation of ethnic peoples. It’s easy for us in this country to condemn cultures which practice clitorectomies—and not so easy for us to look at how we participate with our “own” patriarchy in defining a natural condition among womyn as a disgusting sickness.”

Traveling Fat, Elana Dykewomon

Fat oppression is still so ingrained, most people don’t even recognize it as a problem. There is still a lot of work to do.

Amid the sexual revolution sweeping my generation through the late sixties and early seventies, I remained on the sidelines – permitted to cheer the participants on but never to join in.”

Attraction and/or Intimidation: Fat Women’s Sexual Dilemmas, Karen W. Scott-Jones

Like Oscar Wao in the Junot Diaz novel, and this author, my adolescence was like being locked in the closet on Venus when the sun came out every fifty years. 

When I first began to translate my experiences into politics, I realized how my anger and frustration . . . was directly related to fat women’s status as sexual pariahs. This “status,” in turn, is, (directly or indirectly) responsible for our oppression. Certainly most, if not all, of the discrimination we face is based on our failure to measure up to the looksist standards of acceptability for women today. . . All this intensely negative conditioning toward fat female bodies programmed into just about everyone, fat or thin, male or female, is at the root of our feelings about ourselves as women as well as a basic cause for our mistreatment; dealing with our sexuality, then, is fundamental not only to becoming “sexually liberated” but to confronting the socially enforced taboos we encounter in other areas of our lives as well.”

Attraction and/or Intimidation: Fat Women’s Sexual Dilemmas, Karen W. Scott-Jones

The challenge is to be a fat, sexual woman who expresses her sexuality in a healthy way. It is almost impossible to do this without finding an emotionally-healthy and fat-accepting man.  

My naivete in underestimating the pressures on fat women, in social and/or sexual opportunities “offered” them, to attempt to satisfy not only their physical needs but their need to be validated as a woman by being chosen by a man – (as one woman in NAAFA told me, “I don’t feel self-conscious about my weight if I’m with a man because I’m advertising to the world that somebody finds me desirable”) – has, I think been corrected through firsthand experience since then. . . . I have become increasingly aware of the double bind facing any sexually active fat woman: the more options we create and/or take advantage of, the more we realize what the conditions attached to these options are – what we must, in effect, give up to get laid (or have a relationship, or get married, or whatever) this time.

Attraction and/or Intimidation: Fat Women’s Sexual Dilemmas, Karen W. Scott-Jones

I realized the ideas in this quote independently not too long ago, and wrote about it here.

These quotes are just a sampling of what the contributors to Shadow on a Tightrope wrote that I wish I had been able to learn and assimilate thirty years ago.

Maybe it’s taken me so long to get here because I came to feminism, like so many other ideas I now find critical to my worldview, in a roundabout way. As the first generation in my family to attend college, my female role models worked outside the home but didn’t discuss feminist theory. I knew generally about feminism through the news of the Equal Rights Amendment, but in my family, feminism wasn’t really discussed. There was too much work to be done. They taught me that I could and should work, and that I should be prepared to take care of myself. As the oldest child, I was expected to help both my Mom in the house and my Dad outside and with the car. Women were supposed to do it all: work to support the family, take care of the house, and raise the family as well. Three out of my four grandparents had been turn-of-the-twentieth-century immigrants or the children of immigrants, and women had to work. But I’ve also realized that, even though the women worked, the only unmarried female role models I had were the nuns who were my teachers.

The dominant paradigm and expectation that I grew up with was that I would go to college, get a good job, meet a man, and have a family. As far as relationships, I was always told there was someone for everyone.

I remember being told stories of aunts who had been fat as kids, but lost weight when they got to high school. Both were beautiful 1950s brides, slender, with handsome husbands, married before they turned 21. It was expected that I would meet someone and get married, too.

But here’s where the expectation collided with the reality of life as a fat woman. I never got thin. After I discovered BBW magazine, I decided not to diet, and so, I have never weighed under 200 pounds for as long as I can remember. There has never been a time that I could have passed for thin. (Although I know that I have experienced thin privilege when compared to many other fat women. I can buy clothes at a mass-merchandise store, and my body fits in chairs and standard seat belts.)

I never dated in high school, and had few, mostly casual sexual opportunities later.  By the time I was in my early twenties, I was so hungry for a real relationship that I made a terrible choice and let a man I met move in the day after I met him.

I’m a different person now, thankfully. Finally reading Shadow on a Tightrope showed me that what I experienced is not atypical for a fat woman. It sucks and it needs to change, but knowing that others before me have felt the same way gives me companions on my journey.

And knowing others feel the same is the biggest change since 1983. The internet and the rise of social media have allowed an ease of communication that could not have been imagined at that time. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and fat-positive Tumblr pages help by connecting us so that we know that we are not alone.

Vivian F. Meyer wrote in the Foreword that

“we have lacked a way to communicate with each other. Under the triple stresses of fat oppression, isolation, and the disinterest or even hostility with which our pleas for support were often met, fat activists have all too often taken the frustrations out on each other and destroyed our own organizations before they could take root.”

Together, we can make continue to make change, with Shadow on a Tightrope as our inspiration.  All we have to do is tell our stories and open and awaken one mind at a time.

Reading as a Spiritual Practice

This is a sermon I did at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hendricks County in Danville, Indiana, this morning.  

Anna Quindlen, in her short book How Reading Changed My Life, says about her childhood, that “at the time I surely was, the only child I knew, or my parents knew, or my friends knew, who preferred reading to playing kick-the-can or ice-skating.” Raise your hands if you felt the same—I know that I did. She goes on, “In books, I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but, into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself.”

Quindlen tells the story of Oprah Winfrey, who remembered being admonished by her mother “You’re nothing but a something-something bookworm. Get your butt outside! You think you’re better than the other kids.” Quindlen explains “I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth.”

Reading has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can’t remember ever NOT reading. I have books everywhere: in the car, at the kitchen table, in the bathroom, and in piles by my bed.

I’ve found that in some ways, what I read reflects my state of mind. For example, when I was a teenager and very boy-crazy, most of what I read were romances. (Note: I don’t read romances any more. Romance is the one genre that doesn’t seem to give me much spiritual sustenance.) But my state of mind also reflects what I have read. So many times I just happened to be intrigued by a book, and it held exactly the truth I needed to hear at that time in my life.

Why is reading a spiritual practice? I think that a spiritual practice is something that you do consciously that brings you comfort, centers you, or helps you find meaning. It could help you connect with others or make a difference in the world. When I read, I am present right now, not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future. I learn empathy—what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I become connected to the author by reading what he or she has written. Stephen King calls this telepathy. I also become connected to anyone else who has ever read the book. I get to experience the past, present, future, at home and in faraway places, and also go to places that never existed and may never exist, hopefully. (Think The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.)

The pile of books that is too big for my bookcases.

I don’t know moderation when it comes to books. I just can’t seem to say no to more books, even when I have a stack that is more like a pile or a mound or even a heap of books—at any rate, this assemblage of books I want to read cannot be contained in a bookshelf. Every book is the possibility of another world. Or it might hold a truth that will be critical to understanding my life. How do I know until I actually read it?

I love it when books surprise me with their insights—like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. This book is not for everyone, although it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2007. How was I to know that a book set in the New Jersey barrios and in the Dominican Republic would give me a way to describe my lonely adolescence and reassure me that my experience wasn’t completely unique to me? It confirmed that I wasn’t the only person who felt like she was left out of adolescence—Diaz described Oscar being the nerdy fat kid in high school “like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.”

A few years ago, while I was taking the Build Your Own Theology class here, I realized that reading is one of my primary spiritual practices and the main way I practice the Fourth Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Every piece of literature or nonfiction makes some statement that rings true in my own life. By reading, I’m searching for the meaning in my life and trying to figure it all out.

One of the first books I read when I was beginning to admit to myself that I am a writer was Stephen King’s On Writing. It was one of the best choices I could have made. He makes the point that writing and reading is telepathy, in this passage:

“…let’s assume that you’re in your favorite receiving place just as I am in the place where I do my best transmitting. We’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well, yet that presents no real problem. . . . Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To color-blind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation For one things, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes. . . .

The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room . . . except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.”

Reading has allowed me into others’ minds and allowed me to experience more empathy than I would have had, had I not read about people who are not within my direct experience. For example, I am caucasian and haven’t had much experience with African-American communities. But, by reading Beloved, by Toni Morrison, I was able to feel some fraction of the heartbreak, all-encompassing sorrow, and hopelessness that being a slave must have entailed. Toni Morrison didn’t live through slavery, either, but her imagination, experience as a black woman, and gifts as a writer allowed me to feel the horror. By reading the mystery author Walter Moseley, who is biracial, I learned some of what it was like to be a black male in East LA. in the 1950s. By reading The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother, a memoir by James McBride, I learned that my Jewish grandmother, who married my Christian hillbilly grandfather in the 1930s, couldn’t have had things so bad. She and my grandfather were both white. McBride’s parents were black and white in the 1940s, and McBride’s story is so compelling I read it all at once when I had intended to read a little before I went to bed.

Reading also has the power to allow others to empathize with us. I’m in a book group through the library. Most of the women in the group are much older than me. Upon my suggestion, we recently read What Came First by Carol Snow. It is the story of three women and a man connected in a way that can only occur in the past couple of decades. Laura is a lawyer, a single mom by choice to an eight year old, who she conceived by donor insemination. Wendy is a stay at home mom to twin five year olds who were conceived by in-vitro fertilization. Vanessa is a twenty-something dental receptionist whose clock is ticking but her boyfriend of five years seems to be unable to commit. I’ll leave it up to you to guess how they’re connected.

When I read this book, I felt compelled to write to the author and tell her that she wrote my life. Even if the characters never existed in real life, the mere fact that this book was written shows me that the author “gets” me. I’ve never met her, but she understands who I am, and how it feels to be me. That’s what I want when I read—to feel that commonality of experience that I am not alone. Carol Snow told the story of my life and the decision I made to become a single mother by choice more perfectly than I could have explained to my friends in the book group if we had just been talking.

Last fall, I read The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. It had very mixed reviews because it is nothing like Harry Potter—there’s no magic and it is very realistic. It’s the story of the town of Pagford after councilman Barry Fairbrother’s death. Conflicts arise between members on the town council who want to keep The Fields—a low income housing development—as part of Pagford, and those that want to de-annex it and allow a larger city to care for its inhabitants. Fairbrother had been from The Fields, was someone who –quote—made something of himself, and was in favor of keeping The Fields within the town. Others had been plotting to cut it off. All of the characters are intertwined—the adults and their teenage children. It deals with adult themes—there are portrayals of death, infidelity, heroin addiction, teenage sex, cutting, bullying, mental and physical illness, child neglect, and domestic violence. But Rowling writes truth.

A social worker, Kay, mother to a teenager, Gaia “watched the sleeping face and recalled the beautiful little baby who had slept beside her, sixteen years ago….Kay remembered the fantasy she had nurtured (with hindsight as silly as four-year old Gaia’s wish for a unicorn) that she would settle down with Gavin and give Gaia, at last, a permanent stepfather, and a beautiful house in the country. How desperate she had been for a storybook ending, and a life to which Gaia would always want to return, because her daughter’s departure was hurtling toward Kay like a meteorite, and she foresaw the loss of Gaia as a calamity that would shatter her world.”

I’m a single mother, my daughter is almost ten, and I’m learning how to be satisfied with being single. When she wrote that passage, I knew that Rowling gets me.

Another resident in The Casual Vacancy, a family practice physician, is on the town board and had been close friends with the man who died, Barry Fairbrother. In the ensuing political ugliness, she tries to maintain her equanimity and she falls back on her Sikh religion as she tries not to get drawn into the fray. She remembers the story of “Bhai Kanhaiya, the Sikh hero who had administered to the needs of those wounded in combat, whether friend or foe. When asked why he gave aid indiscrimately, Bhai Kanhaiya had replied that the light of God shone from every soul, and that he had been unable to distinguish between them.”

I love it when a book I don’t expect contains such truths, things I can relate to and remember. “The light of God shone from every soul.” What more do we need to remember?

I have always been a voracious reader, but I had the problem of not remembering what books I’ve read. That changed in 2008, when I found this little journal. It’s titled “Books I’ve Read, A Reader’s Journal.” I have journaled off and on for my entire life, but I’ve had the problem of consistency. I’d start journaling every day, then something would happen and I’d fall off the wagon. When I saw the book journal, I thought, like you do with a New Years’ resolution that “things would be different.” For each book, you only had to write a page—what would be a tiny 3 x 5 card’s worth of thoughts. I thought it would be journaling that would be manageable for me.

Well, things have been different. I’m on the 6th journal in the 5 years I’ve been keeping a book journal. My book journals document 385 books that I’ve read in the 5-plus years since April 2008. Why do I keep doing it? I love to page through the journals and remember the quotes I wrote down or the way the stories made me feel. I love the feeling of accomplishment I have when I look back on what I’ve read. My books are like friends I can return to again and again. Sometimes I read the entry I made for a particular book, and I can remember what else was going on in my life when I was reading that book. Like the book I started at bedtime on a Friday night and stayed up until 3 am to finish. Whether I was on a trip when I was listening to the audiobook, and where I was going. And when I’m talking with someone and think of a book that would be good to mention in the conversation, I don’t have to rely on my memory—I can go back to my book journals to find out what book I was thinking of. Keeping the book journal has helped me to summarize in others’ words those things that provide a source of meaning for me.

Anna Quindlen, in How Reading Changed My Life, talks about “those of us who comprise the real clan of the book, who read not to judge the reading of others but to take the measure of ourselves.” “All of reading is really only finding ways to name ourselves, and, perhaps, to name the others around us so that they will no longer seem like strangers.” “I am not alone. I am surrounded by words that tell me who I am, why I feel what I feel.”

Pat Conroy, the author of such books as The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, also wrote a memoir about reading called My Reading Life. He admits that “I selected all my books for the possibility of some flare of candles along the road toward illumination or enlightenment.” and “Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.” Me, too, Pat, me, too. What books have changed you utterly?