Reading Challenge Book 8: The Odyssey

I have spoken about my love of stories.

As a young girl my imagination was completely enthralled by the books in my household. Before I could read, I would sit captivated by picture books, peering down into the pages as my mind wrapped itself within the images and brought them to life within the power of my imagination. Even beyond books, I remember obsessing over the images of National Geographic stories and transporting myself to those far beyond regions.

The craft of storytelling holds a power over me that nothing else does. Sometimes my breath snags when I read a particularly potent sentence. My heart taps rapidly whenever I walk among the stacks of books in a library. Characters have been my closest friends, devoted family members, and greatest adversaries. They welcomed me into their worlds and saved me from a lonely childhood and erratic family circumstances.

One particular story that gets my heart rate up is Homer’s The Odyssey. I practically whimper when I think about the longevity of this story’s influence and existence.

I still remember seeing it on the syllabus of my high school freshman English class. I didn’t yet know how old Odysseus’ story is, but was daunted by its reputation and thought it would be a story beyond my reading comprehension. Yet, once I finally cracked open the cover and began to read those ancient lines in dactylic hexameter, I was at ease. It was simple, it was beautiful, and I was in awe that I could be sitting in my high school dorm reading a story passed down through millenia.

I would suggest to you, that if there is something that you think is beyond your reach or beyond your comprehension, give it a try. Even if you do find that it isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll have learned the value in learning that you could.

About the Book

I imagine there are many translations of Homer’s The Odyssey but the one I’ve chosen is Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version. As I have not read any other translations, I can not speak to or compare any other variations.

The Odyssey tracks the long and turbulent journey made by the Trojan War hero Odysseus, king of Ithaka, from the ruins of Troy, through the nearly endless troubles that plague himself and his men, and finally to the shores of his dear home. It is not just a story about voyages but also one of character and means of survival. For whenever the promise of success seems to shine upon Odysseus and his crew, turbulence – whether created by their own folly or by the wishes of the gods – sets forth and hinders the men from their destination.

Of course, when you have god’s bidding for your failure and demise you may find yourself in the precarious position of wreckage and tragic loss.  

When we meet the great sea lord Odysseus, he is tired, feeble, and held captive by the nymph Kalypso. With no hope that he should ever see his beloved wife Penelope or lay his feet upon his homeland, he is weighed by the doom that seems incapable of lifting. But as it were, there remains an ally among gods who is determined to see the weary soldier home.

Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, sets forth to release Odysseus from the torment that binds him and influences passage that allows him to return home so that he may punish the suitors who have taken claim of his palace and endeavor to marry Penelope.

It is a wild, and at times frustrating, ride.

There is a reason Odysseus’ story has endured. You can only truly comprehend that reason if you climb aboard the warlords ship and allow yourself to be moved by the rhythm of this ancient tale.

Read it Out Loud

Some people say that poetry is meant to be read out loud. I think in the case of The Odyssey they may be right.

I find that when I read this epic out loud, I feel a greater sense that I am being tugged within the ebbs and flows of Odysseus’ story and journey home. The melodic and lyrical words enhances the experience and transcends a feeling more akin to listening to a song than reading lines from a book.

I feel myself jostled by the aching waves that carry and hinder Odysseus as he efforts to reach Ithaka. I feel the spray of ocean dampen my skin and am daunted by the endlessness of the ocean’s extension. I pray that the god’s temper mercy for the war hero and for the men who have remained by his side. I am filled with the sorrow when those lives are snuffed out in fulfillment of their morbid destiny.

For me, it has enhanced the story and makes me feel less of a passive bystander and more of an active participant.

There is another purpose for the auditory practice beyond the pleasure of it. For about 4 years I have experienced symptoms derived from the genetic mutation homozygous MTHFR C677T. While the aches and fatigue are challengers to my well-being, it is the brain fog, loss of memory, and difficulties with articulation that drive me crazy. At the peak of my ill-health I find that I get lost in my words and become frequently tongue-tied. For some time, my only resolution has been to keep quiet and speak only when I am certain I can make it to the end of a sentence without error.

In The Odyssey I have found a more favorable exercise to loosen the knots in my mind and allow words to flow more gently from my mouth. I find that when I spend time reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation out loud, the mechanics of my speech strengthen and maneuver with noticeable ease. With this, a confidence within my cognitive functions has drastically increased and I feel more myself than I have in at least 4 years.

A Story of Home

In the storytelling of our own lives we often draw out the map of our experiences and point to particularly exciting plot points to invoke intrigue and interest from our audience. On those maps, you can typically see the start and end points where home resides. While The Odyssey is the story of journey and the meat of this tale is of Odysseus’ adventure, the core string that ties all events together is home and the drive to return to who we are in our most natural state.

When all is said and done, after all of our ships have been anchored and our journeys settled, it is a sense of home, familiarity, and comradery that soothes the weary heart.

I think that is, in part, what I love so much about this story; that although I get swept up in the journey and in the adventure, like Odysseus, my eyes are always seeking the port of Ithaka and hoping that he can finally return to his beloved Penelope and lay eyes upon the son he never met.

In my own life, I have been fluttering about with little direction, allowing myself to be carried about by whatever doors open up to me. It has been an interesting but somewhat confusing experience. And although I do not seek permanent roots, the notion of building home has become more and more appealing. I still want to wander the world and explore endlessly, but to have a place steady in the horizon to set my eyes upon when I grow tired feels more necessary.

Within the months following a health crash back in October, I have come to appreciate my adopted home in northern Virginia. It has been 3 years since I moved from Connecticut and it has taken those 3 years for me to feel a sense of home and connection to this region. In these years I have frequently considered returning to my northern, snowy roots. I miss the way the trees mark the change of time and the way fallen leaves leave roads a mix of golden and bronzed hues. At times I look to the horizon seeking the hills and mountains that stand guardian to New England and instead find a surplus of airplanes coming and leaving Reagan National Airport.

Yet, when I experienced that health crash, I rejected the offer to return home and instead found that where I stood meant more to me than I had realized. For while Washington, DC can be a bit of a rukus and where I live on it’s skirts in Virginia are far hotter than I enjoy, I see the possibilities of a life I had only dreamed of back in my bucolic hometown.

It is interesting now, that when I visit the homeland, I feel somewhat disoriented and almost as if I’m missing an important attachment of my character. To some degree that is because my hometown and the surrounding towns have changed somewhat. New buildings have been built, traffic patterns have been altered, and I don’t recognize a single person. But it’s more than that.

Odysseus finds himself similarly afflicted when he finally finds himself in Ithaka. For a moment he is certain that he is elsewhere and feels daunted by the idea of yet another hurdle that keeps him from home. I think this speaks to less of the physical changes of a landscape and more of the internal changes within the self.

Odysseus has been gone for approximately 14 years and in that time he has altered beyond the simple act of aging. When he peers through his eyes and looks upon Ithaka, they are no longer the eyes of a king preparing to go to war, they are from the eyes of a man who has known tremendous loss and overwhelming longing for a life he was certain would never return.

We evolve and transform with every day, every person, and every experience we meet. When we try to return to our original selves, or selves of our past, we find that we are no longer the same puzzle and our pieces no longer fit where they once did.

As I’ve made my way through this reading challenge – of reading the books that have most impacted my life – I have expected to return to a more truer version of myself, but have instead found that there is no truer version than what is present. Instead, I am finding that I have forgotten lessons or traits of younger versions of myself that will enhance the life I live now.

Odysseus carries with him all the tragedy of his journey and it is that momentum that allows him to reclaim his home, not simply by the authority of his birth but by the force of his determination. He is not simply a king or a victor of war, he is now a survivor. Once you learn that you can survive, the boundaries of typical constraint yield.

For me, I have neither seen war nor been held captive in punishment by the gods of ancient Greece. Yet my experiences with a mentally ill parent, with chronic health challenges, and parental neglect and abuse have altered who I am and what I perceive as my abilities. For a long time I logged those experiences as excuses for living quietly. But now I see that my survival of those times suggest that my appetite for life is much louder than I’ve believed.   

Home is inextricably important, as is a sense of self. But I think it is also vastly important that we allow both of those things to grow and evolve. Life was not meant to be lived in one place and we are not meant to be stagnant. Take your challenges as medals of victory and use those lessons to catapult you to the life you want. As The Odyssey aptly teaches, we do not know what lies ahead and we do not know where we will ultimately land. It may be a return trip home or it may be in a land unknown.

My second home pushes me and my old home soothes me. And perhaps some day when I can no longer bear to be neighbors with members of Congress, I will return to the hills, mountains, and gobs of snow. But I suspect if I do, I will not find the place I left behind, nor will I be the girl who was once determined to leave it.

In Conclusion

My conclusion here is simple: The Odyssey has stood the test of time. Do not doubt that lineage and go read it for yourself.

Reading Challenge Book 7: Ceremony

Confidence was not my friend when I was a young woman. In high school I hid behind a quiet and somewhat meek demeanor; always swimming in the fear that my peers would reject me. There were two exceptions to this quiet modality: my history and English courses.

It was completely natural for me to engage and respond to class readings because I already had such a robust personal history of reading. My mind had been synthesizing and analyzing texts since I was a young girl, and thus had a confidence and sense of self in those classrooms that I did not have elsewhere.

However, I may have been over zealous as my peers came to find me horribly irritating and always seemed agitated by my eagerness. While I understand their reaction, I know that for me it was such a rare experience to be confident and capable of producing valuable insight, that I simply could not mute myself. I could see that irritation among my classmates grow to a new height when we read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.

After so many years, I don’t think that I can accurately explain why this novel produced such a strong reaction from me; but as I re-read it for this book challenge, I found myself once more swept away into my waiting imagination and space of curious reflection. This story feeds something within me that most other stories, even those I love, don’t quite manage. I don’t think I have the verbal repertoire to adequately express what exactly that element is, but I think if others were to read Ceremony, they would find themselves similarly touched.

Leslie Marmon Silko is an absolutely stunning writer with a beautiful and undeniable gift of storytelling. It surprises me that Ceremony does not hold the same resolute place on American Literature syllabi as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Scarlet Letter have. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be, as Native American history and literature tend to have a sparse existence among curriculum – at least it was within mine.

In my opinion, Ceremony spotlights the necessity of storytelling and story learning. It is remiss of us as a collective to ignore the fact that American history extends far before the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria arrived in the Bahamas. Stories such as Ceremony should be required reading in order to truly follow our nation’s literary heritage.

About the book:
The protagonist Tayo has returned to the Laguna Pueblo reservation after serving and being held prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. With him he brings the residual trauma that perniciously haunts and debilitates him. Among the traumas that taunt him is the memory of witnessing the death of his cousin, Rocky, who died during the Bataan Death March of 1942. Tayo was meant to protect him and serving the military was meant to uplift Rocky from his circumstances. Yet neither were achieved.

Tayo is deeply sick and, along with his fellow soldiers within the reservation, turns to drinking as an attempt to drown out the terrors that refuse to mollify. This combination of numbing agencies provides only temporary reprieve followed by crushing agony.

In desperation, Tayo searches for another form of healing and turns to medicine man Betonie who incorporates elements of the past and elements of modernity into his practice of ceremony. With his guidance, Tayo seeks resolution through the rituals and traditions of his heritage. Ultimately, it is the practice of storytelling, of following the trail of his story back to his most truthful self that alleviates the drowning of misery bestowed upon by the distortions and despairs of life.

“But as long as you remember what you have seen, then nothing is gone. As long as you remember, it is part of this story we have together.”

Leslie Marmon Silko tackles topics of race, discrimination, theft of land, life, and decency in a tremendously meaningful and profound way. I wish Ceremony was more widely read because I believe it has the power to broaden understanding and push my country (the United States) to teach a more accurate history of this land and the people who have lived here. Perhaps though, that is exactly why it is not.

Power of Storytelling
I believe that storytelling is one of the most remarkable things that humans do. As a history major, I know that it is stories that maintain the record of life and ensures that lessons learned are passed down through the rungs of time and across generations. So many cultures use this medium to ensure that their story endures but sadly, at least from what I see and has been the experience within my own family, it is a ritual that seems to have been neglected and left behind. I think this possible loss is a disservice not only to our individual selves, but to the greater global collective.

“You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.”

On the individual level, knowing who you are, tracing your own story, and connecting to truth is, I believe, vital in securing inner knowing. I think that is why this reading challenge I’ve designed for myself is so important to me. Lately I have found myself feeling as though I am in the middle of wide open meadow with no clear path in any direction. I keep swiveling around, trying to find something to connect me to a firmer, more defined version of myself.

For many months now I’ve been saying the phrase “I don’t know” as if it were a ritualistic prayer of defeat. It has been my response to identifying what I want in my career, what hobbies I may want to pursue, the type of person I would like to marry, where I want to live, who I want to be surrounded by, and truly, nearly, any other question that requires internal insight. Those questions are not uncommon, but I have looked upon them with an almost resolute assuredness that I do not have the capacity to see what is right for me.

It is as though someone took away my ability to translate my life constellations and I no longer know what I am made of and what makes me happy. I’m sitting in classroom, trying to avoid eye contact so that the teacher doesn’t pick on me.

The one thing I know with absolute surety is my love of books and my connection with worlds and realities that exist within the pages of the stories that have most impacted my life. Unlike Tayo, I do not have cultural rituals to guide me, only the pathway of books lined against my wall, crowded under my bed, and decorated across table tops.

Therefore, while standing in the midst of my routeless meadow, I chose to pick up these books – 16 stories that trace my own individual lineage from adulthood to childhood. What I have begun to find are pieces of me, aspects of my character that I have long blanketed under the insecure haze of “I don’t know”.

I still have some ways to go, but I can say that it has already been healing and has revealed parts of myself that I had forgotten or had never given the opportunity to reveal itself.

The Power of Ceremony
I don’t know what exactly it was that caused me to light up when I first encountered Ceremony, I like to think that it is my intrinsic connection to storytelling. After this second reading, I am touched so much by the power Leslie Marmon Silko places upon stories and the near genetic trail they connect cultures with. It only needs to be reignited to establish its potency.

Yet there lies another component of Ceremony that I was probably too ignorant and – quite honestly – selfish to truly see. And that is the reality of the inaccuracies wedged between the lines of our history books and the blatant disregard of truth taught in our classrooms.

In my experience, the history of America, and more specifically, the United States, is greatly flawed and missing substantial aspects of our lineage. My elementary education marked the beginning of the United States with the arrival of Christopher Columbus. In those first few years of education, he was marked as a hero and then later as I grew, his heroism was diluted by the destruction he brought to the native tribes who came into contact with the European arrivals.

From there – and again, from my experience – history moves through the timeline of colonialism, briefly touching upon the conflicts between tribes and settlers, primarily highlighting the victories of those colonists and the ultimate success of American independence from British tyranny.

We treat our story as though it began when white men came to center stage, bulldozing those who had lived and thrived on this continent long before Columbus’ arrival.

I’m finally at a place in my life where I can see how wrong that it and what a disservice it does for all of us who know an misleading story of self – the story of our land. I realize that my life has directly benefited from that incomplete narrative and I hope my life will open the opportunity for me to help shift that fact.

“I will tell you something about stories, [he said] They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.   You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories. Their evil is mighty but it can’t stand up to our stories. So they try to destroy the stories let the stories be confused or forgotten. They would like that. They would be happy. Because we would be defenseless then.”

Tayo follows the rituals of his heritage, performs his own ceremony, and finds strength of truth and self as a result. I dream of a time when my nation, this world go on a collective ceremony and reconnect to truth and the spirit that binds us all to each other and the land we live upon. Only then, I believe, will the deep ever present wounds that continue to spur conflict ebb away and the possibility of true connection can be born.

“When someone dies, you don’t get over it by forgetting; you get over it by remembering, and you are aware that no person is ever truly lost or gone once they have been in our life and loved us, as we have loved them.”

The next book on my reading challenge is Homer’s The Odyssey!

Silko, Leslie Marmon, Ceremony. New York: The Viking Press, 1977.

Reading Challenge Book 6: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I’ve fallen a bit off track with my reading challenge. After reading Deathly Hallows I took a pause, in part, because I was deep in reflection as a result of this reading challenge and also because I admittedly lost momentum and focus. However, I am determined to get back on track and follow through with my intention to read the books that have most impacted my life.

Back in 2011, J.K. Rowling gave poignant remarks at the London premiere of the final installment of the Harry Potter films. For even though her beloved Harry Potter series had come to an end, both in text and on the screen, she wanted to assure her followers, fans, and inspired admirers, that the world she built, that had reached and touched so many, would forever remain a resolute source of inspiration, hope, and comfort.

“Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”

There are very few words that can cause such an instantaneous emotional reaction. Yet, every time I read or listen to this speech, I end up whimpering into a pillow or fluffy blanket, feeling into that initial spark I felt as a young girl wishing with all my might for my own Hogwarts letter.

I adore the Harry Potter series and am so grateful that I was part of the generation that grew up along the timeline of the book releases. For while magic wands, transfiguration spells, and Crookshanks are features of imagination, there is absolutely nothing imaginary about the bond J.K. Rowling created between her readers and her characters.

How fortunate, I think, my generation is to have grown up alongside Harry Potter and his peers, to have had Professor McGonagall as our teacher as much as the students of Hogwarts, and to learn the value of friendship through the dynamics of the Golden Trio as well as through the legacy of the Marauders.

There has been much commentary on millennials and our Harry Potter influenced upbringings, and it’s quite likely that nothing I say in this post will be unique. This is especially true, considering that 400 million copies have been sold worldwide in 68 different languages. However, I do know that while we’re all connected by our mutual love and J.K. Rowling admiration, these stories touched each of our unique hearts and I will attempt to explain here the unique handprint she has left upon me.

As part of my reading challenge, I knew Harry Potter had to make an appearance and chose Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as the series representative. Having just read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a novel that brought up a number of difficult familial memories, I thought a trip back to Hogwarts would be the pick-me-up I needed.

To my great surprise, it took me over a week to process and work through all the feelings re-reading Harry Potter stirred. To be frank, I somewhat expected that at nearly 28 years of age, Harry Potter might feel a bit youthful and that I would find that past connection frayed as I extend further into adulthood. The result was nearly the opposite.

What gets to me now, are, what I perceive to be, the ripple effects of a Harry Potter upbringing across an entire generation. That initial group of readers, who grew alongside those kaleidoscopic characters, are grown adults striving to create the world that they desire. Perhaps it is a stretch, but I like to believe, and think it is entirely possible, that this Harry Potter generation is building the world J.K. Rowling showed us was possible. A world where the deepest, most resilient darkness can be defeated (even if it takes a few attempts).

I fancy (and keep in mind I’m feeling super nostalgic) the notion that we are Dumbledore’s Army, a generation willing to bring light to that which is uncomfortable for the overall betterment of society. I see this at marches along the streets of Washington, DC as people across the world demand justice, decency, unity, and tolerance for all people. I see it in young students demanding leaders take action to protect our planet from further degradation. I hear it in the voices of immigrants who plead to their fellow man to help their children escape the inhabitable circumstances they’re fleeing so that they not only survive, but have the opportunity to live.

More and more I see people from all walks of life, all political spectrums, houses of faith, race, age, sex, nationalities, etc. demand leadership to uphold the pillars of decency and to lay more weight on the need to be supportive of one another, than the drive to compete and out rank each other.

Admittedly, I have done no research, have interviewed no others outside of myself on this matter, but I wonder if the influence of Harry Potter has not played its part – even if it is minimal – in teaching young people that they can fight back when they see injustices or inequalities forced upon themselves and/or others. I suspect I’m correct simply because of how far reaching this story is.

Harry Potter has born plays, musicals (A Very Potter Musical), millions upon millions of pieces of fan fiction, art work, university curriculums, spurred censorship debates, motivated political activity, inspired discussions of theology, and so on. It still surprises me – although it shouldn’t – how many adults I meet who can tell you which Hogwarts House they’ve been sorted into. Quidditch is now a real sport played at the college level. You can actually visit a place called Hogsmeade (ie. Orlando, Florida), get matched with a wand, and drink butterbeer.

Even those who have been able to resist fandom, who have never read a book or seen a film, have a decent knowledge of the story. Growing up, there was nearly no corner that Harry Potter hadn’t existed, which suggests that the lessons of those novels have been studied, learned, and adopted by its robust and devoted fan base.

For me, one of my favorite storylines has been Hermione’s determination to bring justice to house elves and to bring awareness to the institution that has made their slavery an unquestionable norm – even among families, like the Weasley’s, who lead the fight against discrimination of Muggles. While this story possibly stirred more giggles than reflection, J.K. Rowling cleverly showed that even the good guys can be ignorant of injustices and may need to have their eyes opened and their perspectives adjusted.

I certainly wasn’t thinking about fulfilling my Dumbledore’s Army duty when I began to work in climate and then later in immigration reform. But, as I re-read Deathly Hallows, I paused and considered if my love of Hermione had been a more influential power over my life choices than I ever speculated. Perhaps.

I believe that I am not alone in this type of influence made my characters and plotlines that made up the Harry Potter books. But I see this influence not only as a molder of our individual lives, but how we perceive history and take record of who we are and what we have done across time and nation lines.

Like others have noted, I see numerous issues and themes throughout the Harry Potter books that reflect the bleak realities of our past and present. For instance, there have been numerous comparisons of the story of Voldemort and the Death Eaters to Nazi Germany and the plight of Adolf Hitler’s pernicious dogmatic rule. We can also connect the contempt of Muggles to racism, anti-semitism, and all other forms of discrimination that have, and continue to, plague communities and nations worldwide.

Our histories are littered with trauma and circumstances that should never dim in importance. However, because of they are uncomfortable and probably draw shame, they lose their appeal to be studied. As time extends past such events and those who endured them, we lose grasp of the lessons we ought never forget. Simultaneously, history is often taught in the least captivating manor. As someone who has degree in history, I very often meet people who groan about how boring their history classes were and how they never learned anything “important”. This is a comment I find abysmal and not simply because it hurts my history-major-pride, but because I know history to be one of the most valuable mediums of retaining necessary lessons.

We are often uncomfortable with the immoral and inhumane acts carried out by past countrymen, members of our faith, and even relatives. As a result, individuals refuse to look upon the past due to the fear of shaming their heritage and disbelief that atrocities could transpire at the hands of someone not so different from themselves. It is an issue I’ve had to work through myself, and have found pride of family, nation, and self to be the greatest barriers in accepting past events as they truly transpired and their present residual consequences.

The Harry Potter books, in my opinion, create an opportunity for people to still learn those lessons, open up to the possibility of honest reflection, and develop an understanding of the realities endured by our fellow man. Unlike history books, people are willing to return, to revisit, and pass the Harry Potter books on as they are – unedited by the discomfort of reality – to the next generation.

The Odyssey is coming up in my reading list. A story that has survived millennia. I like to suspect that Harry Potter will not only continue to thrive throughout my lifetime and the lifetimes of the next generation, but onward in a trajectory like that ancient tale, that has no perceivable end. If any story of this age could endure, I think it may be this one.

In Deathly Hallows, Harry asks where the train will take him, to which Dumbledore responds, “On.”

And so is how I see the journey of Harry’s story. It will live on. #Always.

I think for many of us, we were Harry, filled with excitement and exhilaration upon entering this new magical world. But even amongst all the splendor and ease this world afforded, people were still people, war was still ignited, and injustices were still inflicted.

Escapism, as Harry learns, is not real and neither is it real for us. We can choose to turn a blind eye and ignore those things that make us uncomfortable, become a Death Eater and make circumstances worse, or join Dumbledore’s Army and use our gifts to dispel darkness with light.

It’s our turn to decide.

And should we need something to guide us, we can always return to these remarkable books, to these characters we love and mourn, to an author who has brought magic to a magic-less world.

After all: Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”

The next novel on my list is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, a story I was captivated by during my sophomore year of high school.

Reading Challenge Book 5: A Thousand Acres

Most books that I have read have left a positive, if not thought-provoking, impact on me. A Thousand Acres is one of the exceptions in that, while it has had an effect, it’s not one I think I’ll want to repeat again.

Jane Smiley’s award winning novel, A Thousand Acres, has been living on my bookshelf for almost a decade due to a hazy recollection that it had made a meaningful impact when I first read it back at the age of 17.

At that age, I was in the last semester of my senior year of high school and, as I explained in my post on Monday, was struggling to both keep up with the demands of school and my mother’s mental health decline. Although I was temporarily able to see the reality of her circumstances, I was conflicted by the vastly opposing narratives my parents told me about each other. The unsurprising result was deep confusion and a need to find answers.

I believe I thought this book shined light on some of those answers and re-reminded me of what my family’s dynamics truly were. In truth, I was simply allowing myself to re-submerge within the lies of one party and allowed old habits and norms to re-establish themselves despite the detriment to my health and wellbeing.

When I chose A Thousand Acres to be part of this reading challenge, I recalled that initial punch it had left 10 years ago and wanted to reexamine why that reaction occurred. I had somehow forgotten a piece of the story that deeply bothers me, and I don’t think stumbling back into it has been especially positive or beneficial.

About the book:
A Thousand Acres is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel and re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear. As the story commences, a cantankerous Iowa farmer decides to divvy up his farm among his three daughters. However, when his youngest rejects the offer in favor of her law degree and future as a lawyer, he cuts her out of his will and the plans he had designed for the family.

This kicks off a series of events that reveals and unravels issues that have long lived below the surface, kept as secrets or existing as dormant and seemingly lost memories. However, once those secrets percolate, it becomes apparent that they can never return to their submissive retreat.

Reaction at age 17:
A major theme of this novel, is seeing realities that live below the surface and finding truths where secrets or lies have long lived. It is this subject, I believe, of discerning facts from fables that initially drew me to A Thousand Acres and is why I found it so poignant at 17.

All families have stories. For some families, those tales live out in the open, free to live and breathe. Others however, are quietly known and exist only in dark corners so that they are not easily exposed or explored.

The protagonist Ginny, on several occasions, discovers long held perceptions or understandings to be quite far from the truth of reality. These revelations are devastating, and demonstrate the long-lasting impacts of abuse as well as how the mind adopts unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to make life bearable.

Ginny’s journey of discovery and revelations was a storyline I remember deeply responding to and hoped, that in her exploration, I may find the answers I too was searching for. I don’t know that I found answers in her story, but I think it queued me in on just how far reaching and lasting the history of abuse was within my own family.

Reaction at age 27:
I have to remind myself that I chose to begin this challenge because I want to trace my way back to the version of myself that was happy, expressive, and without so much self-consciousness. Because I can’t trust my memories to get me there, I’ve chosen to read the 16 books that have most impacted my life. Impacted, though, does not mean that those experiences were pleasant, just as many experiences I had outside of these books were not. A Thousand Acres is a story that brings me to memories that are painful, uncomfortable and, I think, generally best left alone.

As previously mentioned, one of the storylines explored in A Thousand Acres, reveals a truly horrifying history of abuse, a history that holds some similarity to my family’s. This is not abuse that I personally bore witness to or experienced, but it certainly lingered and meant that I could never be left alone with a certain family member. While I don’t remember always knowing the reason for this rule, I long recall a strong discomfort with their presence. I can also vividly recall my mother strictly telling me that I was not allowed to let this relative kiss me, in a tone that told far more than her curt and deliberate words.

Once the details of their actions came to my attention, I could not unknow them and so many uncomfortable encounters suddenly began to have meaning. I could also see how far reaching that person’s actions were across time and across the institution of our family. I also suspect that those abusive habits did not suddenly appear, but that they were passed down like any other family trait and kept hidden by the submission, shame, and fear of those who endured those inflictions.

I don’t know if reading A Thousand Acres and redigging through this part of my family’s past is especially constructive. In some ways, I suppose this novel sets the reminder to never allow such stories to lay dormant and to ensure that, should I someday have a family of my own, I share my heritage honestly and openly.

However, I’m simultaneously left feeling unsettled. Of course this is a deeply difficult subject, and having it live so close to my life, it naturally leaves an extra kick. But the struggle I’m now having, which I didn’t back at 17, is that I don’t quite understand my parents’ decision to allow my sisters and I to be around this individual and to raise us with a sense of high esteem for their character.

Considering how horrifying their actions were, I don’t know if I should place their decision as an overwhelming act of forgiveness or as one of submission and an attempt to sweep discomfort under the rug.

I somewhat suspect it’s the latter. And I’m just not sure what to make of that.

I’m quite glad to be moving on from this novel. While I can appreciate Smiley’s skill and literary artistry, this is not a story I think I need to rewind.

Fortunately, the next stop of this reading challenge journey is Harry Potter. And man, I am so I ready to sprint out of Iowa and jump on over to Hogwarts.

Up Next:
I am sorry to say that I will not be reading all 7 Harry Potter books, but have chosen to re-read the final chapter of Harry’s story: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Join me on February 25, as I return to England, to Hogwarts, and to the characters who filled in as the family and friends my child-self wished for.

February 25: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 28: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

Reading Challenge Book 4: Animal Dreams

Books appear in our lives at the exact moment they are supposed to. Sometimes, they may need to acclimate to your bookshelf for a few years before they’re ready to be read; but I have come to know this absolute truth: books are vehicles of fate and they appear in our lives to provide aid, knowledge, and support when we need answers most.

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver was the last assignment of my literature class of my senior year of high school. It arrived in my life exactly when I needed it and has continued to be my preferred place of reflection and comfort. I have carried it in my backpack when I go hiking, I hid it in my purse during my friend’s wedding, it has joined me on many commutes, probably every vacation, and is most likely the object I would run into my burning house for.

To some degree, my love for this novel is a bit of a mystery to me. Certainly, it is beautifully written, the themes are captivating, the protagonist is interesting, and I the plot hits all the marks my heart desires. Yet, when I first learned that my class and I would be reading Animal Dreams, one of my peers pinched her face and, with a bit of force, snarled “I hate this book. It is the absolute worst.” In knowing nothing about what I was about to read, I was ready to believe her and prepared to trudge my way through something either mundane or tremendously unpleasant.

Later I was quite surprised by her words. For when I read this book that first time, I felt as if Barbara Kingsolver had custom written Animal Dreams for me. There are so many sentences and phrases that, to this day, spark something deep within me that provides a sense of self I otherwise rarely understand.

I read this book and it’s as though I can read the constellation of my heart and mind; I can see myself and my inner workings in a way that I nearly never can. I need no horoscope, palm reader, or psychic, to tell me who I am or what I am made of. My personal map is laid out in front of me, and each time I read it, I get closer to decoding the hidden messages that will reveal to me who I am and who I am meant to become.

It is odd to describe, and I know that for many others, this may just be another book that passes them by. Clearly it did not hit the mark for my classmate and I suppose it doesn’t for many others.

I’ve become very protective of this book, making sure to never let friends of family members see me read it. I have this odd feeling that if I should share it with someone, they would learn far more about me than I am willing to expose. Whatsmore, if they should dislike it, then they cannot see who I am or may not like those parts I typically keep hidden. To lend this book to someone I know, would be the ultimate vulnerability exercise and I have yet to know a person I trust enough to test such an experiment.

There is odd safety in the fact that I do not know any of you who are reading this.

About the book:
Animal Dreams follows Codi Noline back to her hometown of Grace, Arizona as she attempts to take stock of her life, confront her past, find order, and decide upon what future she wants. While disjointed by the people she had left behind and confused by elusive memories and ambiguous emotions, Codi resigns herself to give Grace one year to care for her ailing father and to realign the direction of her life.

Her story carries the perfect storm of themes that grab at my heart: an environmental catastrophe, Native American storytelling and legends, exploration of self, finding love, and healing the fractures that derail a person’s life. There is not a corner of this tale that I do not love. I can dip my toe into any part of this pool and feel the warm tug of welcome.

Reaction at age 18:
As I aforementioned, this book came to me at the end of my high school career. Like many others I was simultaneously struck with excitement for my future and latched to the nostalgia of my high school experience. An odd combination of wanting to both hold on and let go.

My senior year had been my most academically successful and was in most ways, the best year I had experienced while enrolled. However, there was a substantial dark cloud that had dropped down and saturated those good feelings and left me feeling utterly confused and uncertain about the person I was supposed to be. I cannot explain my reaction to Animal Dreams without first explaining the overall turmoil that had been plaguing my senior year.

For those of you who have been following along this reading challenge, you know that I no longer have a relationship with my mother due to, in part, her challenges with Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder (NPD & BPD). However, at age 18, I was still very much in the throes of her storm and had nearly no notion that it would ever end – nor did I understand that I wanted it to.

My step-father very abruptly passed away in the middle of my junior year from alcoholism. His death was a rampage on the lives he left behind and commenced a battle between my mother and his family that left no person satisfied or healed. The probate case alone was a chaotic mess that both parties were too stubborn and pugnacious to let go of. All felt that they were entitled to something, when all any truly craved was the love and approval from a man who could never fully give either.

It was a battle, but that war felt feeble in comparison to the weight I shouldered as I tried to withstand my mother’s mental decline and rapacious breakdowns.

I understood her sadness in the loss of her husband, for surely anyone would have been devastated by the unexpected loss of their spouse. But at some point my job shifted from one of comforting and consoling, to that of pulling her away from suicidal threats and enduring verbal attacks on the failings she perceived of my character.

I was largely alone at this point as my sisters had moved in with my father, and I was drowning under the weight of her turmoil and my own need to do well enough to get into college. I was carrying both of our futures when my health caved in about halfway through my senior year.

On one particular Friday morning, I nearly collapsed during an all-school meeting due to severe stomach pains, dizziness, and nausea. The school nurse and my advisor had to each take an arm and carefully help me walk across campus to the infirmary. In what has since become one of the most meaningful memories of my life, my teachers swarmed in to give me the support I had never known I was worthy of receiving.

I unrolled all of my troubles onto the school nurse who, in response, called my dad and told him to – more or less – man up, come get me, and be the parent I had far too long needed. To my surprise, he did.

My mother had long instilled in me a narrative around my dad of his not wanting me. It was something I had come to perceive as fact. So when he came to my aid, that tall tale began to loose it’s certainty.

My relief and faith in my dad’s support was real, but short lasting. It was not long before I was once more swept up in my mother’s tide and voluntarily blind to the reality of her lies and manipulations. My temporary moment of clarity was snuffed out, but residual residue continued to drape across my head and I wasn’t sure which parent carried the honest narrative.

This is about when Animal Dreams came into my life.

Fortunately, I do not have to dig into my memory to pull out my initial reaction to Animal Dreams, I have the essay I wrote to give me the exact feelings and sentiments this novel inspired.

Sadly, the truth I thought I had uncovered was simply more of the propagated lies I’d been taught to believe. My present self hurts for my past self and the pain I would endure for ignoring the truth I had temporarily seen when my dad came to get me.

The protagonist of Animal Dreams, Codi, struggles throughout the novel with memories that occured before the age of 15. She sees strangers in the faces of people who helped raise her, mistakenly perceives her sister as the leading lady of many childhood happenings, and has substantial events completely erased from her recollection. In short, she struggles to see her home in the place she grew up and cannot see the reality of who she is and what makes up her character.

Even though it wasn’t quite memory loss I struggled with, I deeply connected with this aspect of Codi’s story. I had been told too many contrasting narratives of my life, my family, my parents, and how and why those things fell apart. And when I re-wrapped myself up in the story of my mother’s telling, I thought I was seeing the clarity I had craved. Sadly, I also felt that Codi’s story was confirming that notion.

I’ve held onto my essay mostly because I earned an ‘A’ for it, after 4 years of trying to achieve that coveted grade from my favorite and most challenging teacher. But I hate to re-read it now because I know how dearly I later paid for ignoring the truth for my mother’s mercurial happiness.

It also pains me to see that I did not adhere to the Oxford Comma. It’s horrifying.

Back then I wrote, “Throughout my young eighteen years, I have found it impossible to set my feet on the ground and feel a sense of belonging because in my life, I have never been able to sit still in one place long enough to make an attachment.”

In some ways I still knew that I was missing something and thankfully, I continued to come back to Animal Dreams intrigued by my connection to its story, hoping that that it would show me what I needed to see.

Reaction at age 27:
It has been nearly 10 years since that first reading of Animal Dreams. This spring we will celebrate our tin-iversary!

My life is substantially different from what it was back in 2009, and yet I continue to face confusion with my family’s story and remain unsure of who I fully am and what I wish to dedicate my life to.

Since I graduated college in the spring of 2013, I have fallen into the jobs I’ve had due to two ingredients: luck and my desire to save the world. As it were, passion and ambiguity have not been the best guideposts for career success and satisfaction. My love of the environment led me to a position at a climate organization with fantastic connections and the world’s worst cultural dynamic. When I jumped that ship, I blindly landed at my most recent job which focused on immigration and criminal justice reform. And while that job allowed me to feel like I was doing my duty to support my fellow man, it burned the bejeezus out of me and has left me in this current state of career ambivalence.

I feel like I’m just waiting for an answer to jump me.

In the onset of this book, Codi is no better. “Along the way I’d landed a few presentable jobs, but in between I tended to drift, like a well-meaning visitor on this planet waiting for instructions.” I almost cried when I read this sentence. I underlined it at some point, so I must have been struck by it sometime earlier, but this time it had an extra punch. I am craving understanding and direction and cannot seem to find the compass within myself.

My memories, either as a result of the brain fog from my health issues or simply because of past suppression, are distorted, missing, or vague. I feel as though there are vast parts of me that I’ve lost along the way, and cannot find when I go looking for them. I see so much of myself in Codi’s character and in her own challenges to discern where her memories have gone and where truth resides.

This is largely why I began this reading challenge. I want to see if I can trace my way back to those lost pieces of myself and see if they will give me the internal clarity I seek.

Who we are and what we want should be obvious. I know what foods I want to eat, I know what places I’d like to travel to, I know what beliefs I hold resolute, I know my favorite color. So why has it been so utterly difficult to know myself, to see my life clearly, and know what it is I want to do?

What I can say now, is that saving the world is preposterous and not an attainable point to steer my life towards.

Codi’s sister Hallie, poignantly writes:

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. (299)”

What do I hope for?

I don’t want to save the world, I want to help people to see themselves with kindness and honesty. I want to help them bring their best selves forward and to every table they approach. I want to spread kindness as though it were infectious.

Many, many books have passed through my hands and I have no doubt that many, many more will come my way. As I look over at the pile of books left to read for this reading challenge, I know that I will return to so many of the stories that have touched my heart and have opened my mind. Yet, for some reason Animal Dreams has been the book to stand out among all the others.

Codi’s story grabbed my heart the first time I read it back when I was first entering adulthood. I thought that I had obtained the clarity I needed to set my life purposefully. Yet, in these 10 years, I have faltered and presently find myself more lost than I have ever been. So many roads I have traveled down, that I am no longer certain of where I am and don’t know which memories to trace or which directions to take in order to find my way.

Yet this book always seems to leave me with a little more understanding of those answers I seek and what I hope for.

Hallie says it so clearly:

“What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it” (299).

What do you hope for?

Up Next:
For the next book of my reading challenge, I’ll be reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a book I read for the same class that lead me to Animal Dreams.

For those interested in following along, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon. If any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!

February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

Thank you for sticking with me on this journey!

Reading Challenge Book 3: Little Women

Since Sunday, I have traveled away from Pip’s London to spend time in my native New England during the years of the American Civil War, so that I might mingle with members of the March family.

Little Women is one of those books that is best read on a snowy or rainy day, with lots of tea, assortments of bread, fruits, and cake.

Sadly, I don’t have cake on hand and did not feel compelled to bake or buy one, so I had to do without. Despite this disappointment, it was still a lovely read and allowed me to reminisce on the horrors I endured during my last reading of Little Women, contemplate my tricky relationship with my sisters, as well as gave me the push to give way to my imagination and the freedom it has been aching sail across. It’s been a very contemplative experience.

For those worried about my lack of cake, I am presently eating a box of oreos to make up for the appalling dessertless gap in my life. (Expert hint: oreos are best when they’ve been in the freezer).  

About the book:
For those who are unfamiliar with this American classic, Louisa May Alcott wrote this semi-autobiographical novel in 1868 & 1869, set in New England during the American Civil War. The story follows the lives of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, highlighting their trials, their fears, their ambitions, their best moments and their worst, and most importantly the deep love that bound them together as they grow.

While somewhat simple in its structure, this story has been beloved by readers generation after generation, and I suspect will continue to be held in high esteem by the generations to come. It has inspired several film adaptations, the most popular being the 1994 film featuring Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale. I believe there is a new adaptation that will be coming out later this year.

At its roots, Little Women is a coming-of-age story of both individuals as well as the family unit; that is, how one grows personally and how a family evolves together. The four girls are wonderfully unique and lead meaningful stories away from their central grouping; evoking so much heart, that they almost come to life. By infusing Alcott’s own story into this one, you can feel the authenticity of these characters and feel all of their pains, their efforts, and their joys tangibly.

I think it would be a mistake to write this book off as a “girls” book or something only to be read by the Ya Ya Sisterhood (please don’t age me if you don’t know this reference). The themes of conflict, personal ambition, family responsibility, war, and love are something any person can relate to and I believe this story does so in a truly timeless manner.

Reaction at age 19:
I first read Little Women in the midst of my emotional drowning.

At the time, I was living in a barn with my mother and oldest sister – as well as the horses that lived beneath our loft – somewhere in northern Virginia. Due to the financial situation (aka there being zero money), we could neither turn on the heat in the winter nor air conditioning when it was sweltering in the summer. Whatsmore, our apartment would often rattle whenever one of our equine co-habitants kicked a wall, causing lots of startles in the middle of the night. None of these things though, really bothered me. Coming from Connecticut I could bundle up through the cold, and while I am no fan of humidity or heat, the summers were survivable.

There was one issue, though, that nearly did me in. And that was a massive infestation of stink bugs.

When we first viewed the apartment, it was winter time and although we saw a few stink bug carcasas, we shrugged it off by assuming the apartment simply hadn’t had a tenant in some time and needed some cleaning up. However, once the winter chill began to dissipate under the spring melt, those little carcasses began to twitch back to life and before we knew it, there was an entire army of their brethren infiltrating every crevice of that loft.

Now, I have always been a smidge sensitive to the creepy-crawly walks of life and continue to be traumatized by the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom bug scene. So when their numbers became so engorged that we could barely see out the window – for that’s where many would congregate – I felt the staples of my sanity begin to detach. They were in my clothes, in the sheets of my blow up mattress, on the counters, on the ceiling, – they were everywhere. I still have hauntings where I can hear their clicking at night as they crawled above my head.

So naturally, this set the perfect atmosphere for reading Little Women.

I say that with a bundle of snark, but I also mean it with truth. I was quite miserable, but out of loyalty to my mother and a devotion to stubbornness, I did my best to hide how overwhelmed I was by those heathen insects. My best tactic, of course, was to read.

What Little Women gave me, at that time, was not something especially profound or life altering; but it gave me peace of mind and a temporary escape to a family I wished I could be a member of. It was not hard to imagine myself as one of the March sisters, as I am the youngest of 3 girls and know such dynamics well. My sisters and I had written plays and stories, created fantasy worlds only us three knew, explored the woods behind our house, invented games and amusements to keep our minds occupied in the age before AOL and cell phones.

Through Little Women, I was able to dip back into the years of my childhood that were fun and sparkly and full of dead animals. That’s right. Dead. Animals. (They were dead when we found them).

Our house was surrounded by woods and my sisters and I, being the incredible adventurers we were, explored every inch of it we could. So much did we love this area that we decided to build a series of forts (ie. sticks leaning against trees) to form a sisterly village. During one of our days of excavation, we began digging what I believe was meant to be a fire pit, and found bones.

I think I was under 5, and firmly believed that we had found a dinosaur (thank you Bill Nye the Science Guy for the inspiration).

Amazingly enough, after we collected all the bones and presented them to my mother, she laughed at us, cleaned them, and let us keep our prize. She also broke the news that it was most likely a deer, but I was still proud of our unified accomplishment.

For some reason, this is the memory that came to me back when I read Little Women in that stink-bug metropolis. I thought of the family I once had, the bond I had with my sisters, and the unrestrained imagination we had as children. And even though it only took me a few hours to finish the novel, that time brightened up the bleakness around me. The clicking of bugs softened, the temperature eased, and I was just myself: the youngest of three girls, playing in her backyard, with no notion that I would end up where I was.

Reaction at 27:
There’s a moment when Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and their beloved companion Laurie, daydream about what their dream lives – their “castles in the air” – would look like, be like, feel like. Meg hopes to be the mistress of a lovely home, filled with pretty items, and plenty of money. Jo wishes for piles of books, to be a famous and wealthy writer of heroic tales. Beth wants nothing more than the simple life she already has. While Amy dreams of being the greatest artist “in the whole world”.

As the girls grow into women, their castles shift in form, and the ones they evolve into are the lives they hadn’t necessarily anticipated, but prefered to the ones their younger selves had designed. While their initial visions did not exactly hit the mark, the heart of them did. Meg sought a sense of home, Jo sought a career as a writer, Amy dreamed of beauty and art. In many ways, those things manifested and came to be.

I can hardly remember what I dreamed of when I was a little girl. I’m not sure I ever looked out so far into my future. So much did I live in my books, among the trees in my yard, and in the stories playing along my imagination, that I don’t think I much contemplated where I was going beyond where I presently was.

I do know that by the time I was 12, which is about how old Amy was at during that scene, I had already begun to believe that the things I longed for and dreamed of were not a possibility for me. To look too far into the future, meant that I would possibly see the version of myself that did not succeed, that did not make it past the absolute nuttiness of my household and family. It was far better to live vicariously through the characters of my books, than to step into my own shoes and live my own adventures.

As I finished Little Women yesterday, I wished to lay in some field, gaze at the clouds above, and daydream about my castle in the air. What would it look like? What would I fill it with? Who would be there?

I think perhaps, it’s finally time for me to let myself daydream and set my imagination free once more.

Little Women has stood the test of time for a reason: it tells a story we all know, yet still need to learn. We are attracted to stories about growing and about how we become ourselves. This is that story, and it is told in such a beautiful and touching manner.

I am grateful for the kind, if not quirky, memories it brings me and am excited my the imagination it inspires.

Up Next:
For the next book of my reading challenge, I’ll be reading my absolute favorite book, Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver.

As a reminder, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon, if any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!

February 18: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – originally read at age 18
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

See you on Monday!

Reading Challenge Book 2: Great Expectations

Yesterday I completed reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as part of my reading challenge to read 16 books that have most impacted my life.

I will say, that while it was a lovely to re-read this book, the experience was slightly dulled down by the fact that I read it in my Virginia apartment rather than in the flat I resided in London back in 2011. Turns out, reading Great Expectations – which largely takes places in London – is a little more fun to read when you’re actually in London.

One of the reasons I love reading so much, is the depth of connection you find within someone else’s words. It never fails to give me a zing of thrill when I come across a story, a sentence, or even a brief phrasing that strikes me so particularly. In such moments, all boundaries and constraints that divide myself from the writer dissolve away and I feel pulled by an inextricable connection to that individual and creator. The fact that I may know nothing about that person is superfluous and for some reason only further strengthens my appreciation for what they have created and its ability to transcend time and all other boundaries.

Charles Dickens, I believe, is such a beloved author for being able to strike this feeling within so many people, across so many decades of time. While my very first experience with this novel was largely unrememberable, my second and now third read through have struck quite a hit.

I first came into contact with Great Expectations when I was a freshman in high school, but I have almost not recollection of that encounter. However, when I found it listed as the first book of my syllabus in British Literature, I was thrilled to commence my experience abroad in London with Dickens as my guide.  

About the book (can skip if you’ve read the book):
First published as a serial in Dickens’ weekly periodical from 1860 to 1861, Great Expectations is a story centered around the orphan Pip and traces his life from its meager beginnings as well as his ardent efforts to become a gentleman. As a young boy, Pip is invited to the eccentric Miss Havisham’s manor – Satis House – where he meets the beautiful, but terribly cold-hearted Estella. Through her disdainful remarks and jeering reproaches, Pip begins to see his life with shame and becomes desperate to climb out of his common status.

Several years later, Pip receives a large gift from an anonymous benefactor, immediately freeing him from the life he disavows and allowing him to commence his education to become the gentleman he believes he must become. However, it is a much more complicated journey than that, as things are not as they seem. It does, however, become clear that this is not so much a Cinderella story, but rather a story about moral redemption.

Reaction at age 20:
When I arrived in London in the fall of 2011, I was about a month out from the collapse of my relationship with my mother who had told me not to return home after I announced that I was going to attend a family gathering on my father’s side.

For years I had taken on the role of counselor and supporter for my mother, long trying to quell her meltdowns and attempting to create an atmosphere of stability with an adamance of loyalty. Despite my keen and resolute efforts, that summer I had begun to splinter under her increased tone of derision. When that final storm plowed through, I no longer had the emotional adhesive or conviction to hold on; and so I did as I was told. I did not return home.

Unsurprisingly, a cloud continued to hover over me in those initial weeks and months as I began to figure out what my life would now be without my mother’s unyielding and belittling presence.

It would seem, my study abroad program in London was perfectly placed. Almost like a pause, my time in London gave me the space away from my parents and family to come to terms with what had just occurred, without the confusion of other opinions to blockade my own. Stepping into Great Expectations as my first tour guide not only allowed me to see the city through Dickens’ literary lense, but it also touched parts of my own story that began the processes of self-reflection.

When I read this novel about 7 years ago, I was most struck by the storyline surrounding Miss Havisham’s coachining of her adopted protege, Estella, to ensnare the attention of men so that she may in turn break their hearts. As a result of her own heartbreak, Miss Havisham lives frozen in the past; she remains in the yellowed wedding gown she adorned many decades ago, stays in a room with the decomposed, pest infested cake, with clocks that no longer track time.

A peculiar backdrop for any child to grow up in.  

As a result of this rearing, Estella is presented as equal in beauty and coldness. Like Pip, I was both put off by her prejudice, mockery, and rude disdain for those of she deemed less, while also intrigued by her aloof and snarky qualities. Throughout their interactions, Miss Havisham gleefully goads Pip into enamoration of Estella while urging her to maintain his awe so that she may some day reject him with brutality.

(Not the best parenting on record)

Yet, ultimately, the very teachings Miss Havisham instilled in Estella ultimately took a stronger, more resilient hold of the girl than she wanted. In the scene that most captivate me, Miss Havisham becomes aghast when the monster she created is just as heartless towards her as the many men she was trained to abuse. In response Estella says:

“I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the successes, take all the failure; in short, take me (page 304).”

It is not surprising to me now that this relationship, and most specifically, this moment, gave me pause and stood out most prominently when I read Great Expectations in 2011. I was in the very early stages of coming to terms with how my mother had treated me and was still sorting through the many distorted and delusional perspectives she had raised me on.

But more than anything, this moment captured for me a sentiment that I, like Estella, felt. How could it be that after years and years of altering myself and adjusting my behaviors to my mother’s specifications, that she could be so dismissive of the person that I had become? I was all that she had ever requested and had sold so much of my own identity away to better suit what she found appropriate or worthy. Yet, in the end, what she saw in me was not what she wanted.

I can see this situation clearer now that I’m about 7 years past, but I can still feel that ache in my stomach from when I read this passage back in 2011. I did not know then how much healing was going to come and how much growing would take place. It was all still so fresh and I had no idea if I would remain stuck in heartbreak like Miss Havisham, or if I would ever be fully free of it all.

I read what I needed to at that time. And I do believe it was an experience that allowed me to begin to see things in a true manner. Not to say that it caused some astonishing and instantaneous emotional healing, but it may have nudged me forward to get there.

Reaction at age 27:
Today, I see a very different story than the one I read back in 2011. I recall not particularly liking Pip towards the end of his story and having little compassion for the challenges he ultimately faces. Yet, now I see how deeply shame played into his experiences and how it manifested into truly devastatingly transformative ways. At 27, I can now empathize with the long lasting effects shame can have on your life and understand the infectious hold it can have on you. At 20, I was still too wrapped up within its grasp to see that.

Pip certainly did not grow up in a supportive household. While loved and cared for by his sister’s husband, Joe, Pip is beaten, admonished, and verbally lacerated by his sister daily for merely existing. He is not unaware of the misery she instills nor the obnoxiousness of those she holds acquaintanceships with. Yet, early in the novel, Pip holds no particular rejection for his lifestyle or his future as an apprentice to Joe to become blacksmith. That is, until Estella gives him insight to think otherwise.

After Pip’s first visit with Miss Havisham and Estella, Pip walks away realizing two things. One, that he is “common”; and two, that such a life is beneath others and is therefore something to be ashamed of. From the moment he learns that he calls knaves “Jacks” – which Estella asserts to be disgraceful – he sees his life in a completely different way. He thinks to himself:

“I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it (page 60)”

When I read that, I instantly felt my own sources of shame and better understood the less than kind behaviors Pip would later embrace. I can see within myself the less than kind behaviors I’ve adopted in reaction to my own embarrassment.

Shame is as Pip describes: infectious. And once you catch it, it can be incredibly difficult to innoculate.

I can still recall being in first grade and finding out that I was to be placed in a reading group for “slower” students. As my classmates were assigned their different groups, designated by colors, I was pulled aside by a class assistant and informed that I would not be placed in one of them. I was utterly stunned. Until that moment, I had zero perception that I had been doing anything wrong or that I performing and differently than my peers.

It was in no way the school’s fault and I don’t hold any anger against my teacher for making that decision, but from that moment on I knew I was less than the other kids. And they knew it too.

I can still feel the gut-punching shame I felt as that young girl. And it was infectious. Like chicken pox, shame started popping up everywhere and showed up in all of my classes and in my friendships. People knew they were smarter than me and some classmates seemed to derive pleasure in reminding me of that.

Of course, that situation should have no hold on me now as I am a voracious reader and have so many books, that their piles line my walls. However, I can still feel the slight snags of discomfort when I meet new people, or when I have to speak up at work. Even today, I still get these whispered reminders that I’m not as smart as the other people in the room and that I’m “slower” and would be better off not speaking up or sharing my opinion.

I imagine we all have a similar moment (or moments) that has triggered shame. It may have been a small bite, but it has had a long lasting effect and may still bring these moments of discomfort that stifle your true self. It seems ridiculous that I could have given so much power to something that happened over 2 decades ago, and I want to do what I can to let it go.

I wish someone had stepped in and given my younger self the assurance that, even though I needed help, I was no less worthy than my peers. And while that person did not exist, I can be that person for myself today and you can do the same for yourself.

Unfortunately for Pip, he had to go on quite a journey to see himself clearly. I wish for myself and for everyone else, that we can learn from his story, and cease giving power to others who make us feel less or unworthy. And when we cannot do it for ourselves, I hope that we have the friends, family, and community who can help hold up the light for us until we are ready to.

For those who want to dig more into the subject of shame, I suggest looking to Brené Brown as a resource. Below is her TED Talk from 2012 on the very subject.

In Conclusion
I think folks often back away from books like Great Expectations because it’s something you would see on an AP English reading list and was written in a time or place that may be unfamiliar. Yet despite those factors, it is an incredibly relatable – if not quirky – tale of growing, learning, self-discovery, and gratitude. There’s a reason why it stood out to me back in 2011, and I’m so happy to have come back to it now more than half a decade later.

Up Next
For the next book of my reading challenge, I’m crossing the pond back to my native country for Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

As a reminder, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon, if any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!

February 14: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – originally read at age 20
February 17: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – originally read at age 18
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

See you on Thursday!

Source: Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Penguin Books, London, England. 1996

Reading Challenge Book 1: The Glass Castle

On Friday I kick-started my reading challenge to read 16 books that have most impacted my life, starting from most recently read to the books most distantly, tracing my steps from the woman I am now, to the young girl I once was. I hope to find or reignite parts of me that have gone dormant through the course of my adulthood. I am excited to see where this journey goes and hope to gain some clarity and meaningful self-reflection along the way.

The first book on my list is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

This memoir kicked my emotional behind both the first time I read it and this most recent round.

About the book (you can scroll down to the next section if you’ve already read it):
For those who are not familiar with the memoir or the 2017 film adaptation, The Glass Castle is the remarkable story of Jeannette’s young life and her family’s tribulations through poverty, alcoholism, inexplicable parental neglect, love, survival, and resilience. It is filled with raw accounts of children learning how to feed, protect, and take care of themselves while their parents stood to the side, consumed with their own challenges, skewed perceptions, and selfish desires.

Rex, the Walls patriarch, was a brilliant exuberant force who instilled creativity, imagination, and deep resiliency within his children. Throughout this story, I found it hard not to be drawn in by his magnetism, despite his dangerous and debilitating penchant for alcohol. Yet for all his creativity, intelligence, and undeniable talents, Rex was clearly haunted by his own abusive upbringing and plagued by paranoid delusions, the cost of which, was his children’s well-being.

Rose Mary, the Walls matriarch, never once seemed particularly fond of her matriarch position. Over and over she failed to prioritize the care for her children out of resentment of having to give up her daydreams for their survival. Often blaming her alcoholic husband or simply because she did not want to, Rose Mary regularly refused to seek employment or to take any sort of responsibility for the lives she and Rex brought into the world.

While Rex’s behaviors were at times gut wrenching and utterly unforgivable, I find Rose Mary and her apathy the most difficult to comprehend. I know that this stems from my experience with my own mother and her similar disregard for taking care of my sisters and I; so please be aware that my perception has a biased skew.

One particular example of Rose Mary’s behaviors shined through when her children found a diamond ring. They brought the piece of jewelry to their mother to be appraised in hopes that they would have money to quell their starvation. Instead of choosing to feed her children, Rose Mary chose to keep the ring, explaining: “It could improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food (186).”

That is simply staggering to me. Especially, when this was not even the worst incident of her irresponsibility.

This is a challenging story to stomach and tugs hard on the emotions of any person, regardless of whether the Wall’s family experiences are near or far from your own. For me, while Jeannette’s and my upbringings are far from comparable, there were numerous trigger points planted throughout the memoir that set off memories of my own that I would usually prefer to leave untouched.  

Below are the two reactions I’ve had to The Glass Castle, the first occurring at 25 when I was still very much coming to terms with my own dysfunctional upbringing and the memories that were taunting me.  

Reaction at age 25:
I first read this memoir shortly after I moved to Virginia from Connecticut at the age of 25 in 2016. While I was excited about this new chapter of my life, I had never thought that I would return to Virginia and had to come to terms with the experiences I thought I had left behind.

About 7 years prior, I had moved to White Post, Virginia out of support for my mother who was fleeing Connecticut after the loss of her alcoholic husband, a two year probate battle with his family, bankruptcy, and years and years of familial and emotional chaos. My mother, who has been diagnosed with Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder (NPD & BPD), thought this new place could give her the blissful life she thought she ought to have. To keep the story short, it did not and I was the one who took the brunt of her resulting volcanic breakdowns.

Two years into our Virginia escape, she had one particular breakdown triggered by my decision to attend a family gathering with my dad’s family. After expressing her profound and unbearable disappointment in me, she told me not to come home.

After years of doing all I could to earn her love, to gain her approval, and make her happy, I was finally released from an unattainable emotional contract I’d been forced into. And in a demonstration of the obedience she had instilled within me, I did as I was told.

We essentially have not spoken since.

As you may imagine, reading a book involving dysfunctional parents was not an especially healing experience. Even though it was about 5 years past that explosive day, during that first reading of The Glass Castle, a lot of old wounds were ripped open and I felt the newly constructed structures of my healing buckle under the weight of those most pernicious memories.

When I read I The Glass Castle in 2016, I saw the primary story as one of abuse and parental neglect. I was enraged and deeply unsettled by the fact that the Walls family could continue to meet at the Thanksgiving table despite their parents horrendous, and in my opinion, unforgivable actions – as well as inactions.

I could not comprehend Jeannette’s sense of love, forgiveness, and generosity for parents who, to my perception, could barely scrounge up the same for her or her siblings.

What incensed me about her parents is what I still find deeply challenging within my own; that is, the knowledge that they are unable, or simply choose not, to take accountability for their actions and for the weight of dejection they dropped on our childhoods.

One thing in particular that stood out to me at the time was when Jeannette’s parents would dismiss their children’s pains, hunger, and struggles by saying, “that which hurts you, only makes you stronger.”

I’ve heard this phrase a million times myself, and it is one that I have historically disliked. From my perspective at the time, the only “strength” obtained, were the emotional calluses that prevented severe blistering during the war of my mother’s episodes. Those blisters simply meant that I was able to stay in that relationship longer because of the shell I had built up to numb my reality.

Another point I found repugnant, was the praise of children from dysfunctional upbringings for their resiliency and adaptability. Did they not understand the cost we had to pay to earn those abilities? And did they not see the interest we were still paying to maintain our adeptness?

The cost of the Walls children was beyond evident as they had to become their own parents and ensure the survivability of the family. For me, I often had to step in as the counselor, consoler, and overall emotional support system for my mother, including one particular incident when I had to hold her hands down to keep her from, as she so often threatened, slamming me.

My ability to connect with others, to experience vulnerability, and have happy, healthy, and loving relationships has been substantially marred. My resiliency has been a wall. And my goodness, it has taken everything within me to try to take it down.

So the first reading of The Glass Castle was a complicated one. However, this memoir has lingered in my mind these past two years and it was the story that pushed me to restart therapy and take healing my emotional health more seriously. For all that it reopened my wounds, it gave me the push to get them firmly closed.

Reaction at age 27:
I was not super keen about having The Glass Castle be the book to kick-start my reading challenge. I knew it would draw out some of my most uncomfortable experiences and also knew it would be a challenging book to write a reflection for. Yet, every time I tried to add another book or re-arrange the order, somehow I always came back to the one that starts with this memoir.

So, did two years make a difference in my reaction?

Yes and no.

I definitely still felt quite a bit of anger and frustration towards Jeannette’s parents (with continued resentment for her mother specifically). When reading about the depth of poverty and the depth of irresponsibility displayed by Jeannette’s parents, it’s very hard not to.  However, there were three takeaways that I did not have during that first reading.

For one thing, my ability to emotionally bounce back from especially poignant passages was far faster than it was before. While the last reading created lots and lots and lots of ruminating, obsessing, and overall unhealthy thought bundling; this time, when I felt the snap of frustration build up, I was able to ease out of it within moments and continue on my way.

There’s a second point that stood out to me that I was not yet ready to see at age 25. Our parents, regardless of where they stand on the spectrum of function to dysfunctional, have a lot of teach us, so long as we are willing to listen to their lessons. Those lessons come in so many different forms and sometimes cannot be understood until you step away and place some time in between. Some of those lessons are kind and inspiring, while others are bleak and heartbreaking.

Rose Mary could see the beauty in unusual things and taught her children to see the world more openly. During one of the most beautiful moments in The Glass Castle, Rex taught his children that the best gifts of life cannot be wrapped in a box and are far more lasting than the plastic toys found at a store. These kinds of moments matter, even when the overall experience is less than inspiring.

For me, the good moments I had with my mother instilled hope, creativity, and furthered my imagination. The bad moments, alternatively,  have helped me assess how I choose to treat others by reflecting on how I wish I had been treated. There is a depth of patience and empathy I hold for strangers that I do not think I would have, were it not for the negative experiences of my upbringing.  I am grateful for those lessons and hope I see more of them as I continue to grow and heal.

The last takeaway was something that could only have occurred at this point in my life.

Throughout the memoir, it is clear that Jeannette and her father had a particularly strong bond. It was clear because Rex often told Jeannette that she was is favorite. And while that is perhaps not the best form of parenting, that love was true and clearly helped Jeannette become the woman she is. It is that love she held onto when she got off a bus in New York to begin a new life. This is one of my favorite moments:

For years Dad had been telling me I had an inner beauty. Most people didn’t see it. I had trouble seeing it myself, but Dad was alwaysing saying he could damn well see it and that was what mattered. I hoped when New Yorkers looked at me, they would see whatever it was that Dad saw (245).

When I first read this passage, I was jealous of Jeannette. I was envious of her having a parent who could see her and who loved what they found. As far as I can tell, my parents did not have that insight and as I grew up, I hoped that others would see what my parents seemed to ignore or possibly dislike.

Today though, I do have a community of people who support me and seem to see something in me that I’ve never been able to. When I left my job about three weeks ago, so many colleagues came forward and told me how much I meant to them and to the organization, and how much of an impact I was leaving behind. A number of people told me that they wanted to write letters of recommendation when I begin the process of seeking employment, and person after person reminded me that I would always be part of the family.

I was not expecting this outpouring of support and have somewhat found it challenging to process it. What I hope, as Jeannette hoped, is that when others look at me, they see whatever it is my working family sees.

In Conclusion
While it has been an emotionally revealing experience, I am glad that I chose to start my reading challenge with Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. I wanted to go on this journey to bring back memories that have faded and re-reveal parts of me that I, or others, have pushed aside. I can see that in just two years, so much of my life has changed and so much has improved.

I am excited to see where the rest of this journey leads me and what it will reveal about myself.

If you have not read The Glass Castle, I highly recommend giving this book a read (with a box of tissues handy). There’s also a film adaptation (trailer below) featuring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts. I haven’t seen it yet, so if you think it’s worth a watch, let me know!

And if you have a stack of books that have made an impact on you, it may be time to give them another read – you never know what you’ll find.

Up Next
The next book on my reading challenge adventure is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations! In my post on February 10, I’ll reflect on how this book helped me in the first few months after the separation from my mother while I was studying abroad in London.

As a reminder, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon, if any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!

February 10: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – originally read at age 20
February 14: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – originally read at age 20
February 17: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – originally read at age 18
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

See you on Sunday!

Walls, Jeannette, The Glass Castle. Scribner, New York. 2005

Reading Challenge: 16 Books to Trace My Steps

It has been 3 weeks since my last day of work. In these twenty-one days I’ve experienced a wide spectrum of feeling from restlessness to excitement, I’ve been energized and completely exhausted, hopeful to painfully uncertain. As I’ve made my way through this health hibernation, I’ve bumped into a nagging sense of disorientation, almost as if I’ve misplaced something and can’t quite figure out how to find the missing answer.

Due to the almost daunting amount of solo time, there has been a lot of space filled with contemplation, reflection, and (unhelpful) conversations with myself. I began wondering what would I do right now with this free time if I wasn’t sick, if I had energy, if there were no limiting factors.

I am in this incredible, wide open space. I’m in a pause and can re-calibrate my life to the one I truly want. Yet, despite my best efforts to meditate, read my palms following Google Images, and analyze the coffee grinds in my mug, the answers have not made themselves readily available to me. It’s been frustrating and has fueled a burning impatience I have for myself.

The thing is, I remember there being a time when I was full of creativity, excitement, imagination, and readiness to explore. I was open, free minded, and knew what brought me joy. So why is it, that within all this open space, I can’t seem to pick a direction?

When we lose something, we retrace our steps to find misplaced items. I am going to attempt to replicate this practice in hopes of finding that part of me that has gone dormant through the course of my adulthood. And I have identified the exact thread and pathway that will lead me to where I want to go.

For the next two months, I will be re-reading the 16 books that have most touched, impacted, and influenced my life; going in order of most recently read, to most distantly.

There is no other factor, no other piece of my life that has more defined and shaped me than my love of books. They have guided me, taught me, healed loneliness, inspired motivation, and provided light when the distance ahead or the time behind has felt daunting or painful. I can still feel and remember the utter exhilaration I enjoyed when I first learned to read. Words suddenly left their state of inertia and sprang into life. It was the closest experience to magic I have ever encountered. I intend to recreate that feeling and see the directions that light may reveal.

Despite the fact that I was put in the lowest reading group in first grade, by the third grade I was reading ravenously and could not find enough books to satiate my infatuation. Within the pages of books I have traveled to dozens of worlds, seen the rise of heros and the descent of villains, watched the disparity of wars transform into peace, witnessed the unlikeliest of friendships to be born, experienced the victories of courage and the despair of fear, and have been on more adventures than I could ever have in my own life.

And while I’ve remained an avid reader, in the last decade I’ve found myself lost in what sparks interest and have found that old zing and zest to be deeply subdued. I’ve been tired, restless, and aimless, hoping that I’ll somehow stumble upon the career or the life that I want. So far that tactic has been fruitless and my most ardent affirmation has become: “I don’t know”.

Yet, somewhere within me, I suspect that I do know.

So, beginning today, I will read my way back to myself and back to the young girl still excited and open to possibilities. My hope is that I knock over some of the walls I’ve built up and rediscover parts that have been living latent beneath those structures. If nothing else comes to be, this will at the very least reconnect me to my deep love of books, and bring a lightness to the deep weight of my restlessness.

Below are the books that I will be reading and the order I’ll be reading them in:

February 5: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls – originally read at age 25
February 10: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – originally read at age 20
February 14: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – originally read at age 20
February 17: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – originally read at age 18
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

On the dates above, I’ll share my recollection of the initial impact these books had on me when I first read them as well as my reflection of their impact today at age 27. I may have been a bit ambitious with a few of these and some of the dates may change, but I am a fast reader and hope I can get through these at the pace I’ve tracked.

As I’ve pulled these books out of my bookshelf and ordered them from Barnes and Noble, I’ve already begun to feel a zing of excitement and anticipation. I haven’t looked at or thought of some of these stories in over a decade and it almost feels like a family reunion. I’m excited to get started.

In these three weeks I have felt the urgency of needing to figure out my next steps, to get my health into gear, and orient myself towards my future employment. But I also see that in many ways, I have not changed my behaviors from the ones that triggered my health crash back in October. I am still pushing, shoving, and beating myself up for not having it all together.

For while I have built a daily meditation practice, have established an exercise regimen, attend career counseling, and attempt to eat healthier, there is something undeniably missing from my Wellness Journey.

That missing piece is the space to rest, reflect, and absorb healing.

I suspect I’ll be able to find all of those things while on this reading journey.

Windows Open, Windows Close: A Lesson in Willingness

What does it take to build the life you want? I’m learning that such a road is not so simple to construct.

Since October 26, I’ve been trying to establish the healthy habits I need to give myself my best chance at a happy and fulfilling future. For over three years I’ve been struggling with symptoms stemming from a genetic disorder (homozygous MTHFR C677T). During these three years, my life has consisted of working, commuting, therapy, going to doctor appointments, and recuperating from all of the above. I am tired all the time and, as a result, have missed out on so much. The physical symptoms have certainly been challenging and I never really know how I’m going to feel the next day. It has been deeply frustrating and has simultaneously exasperated a lot of emotional baggage I’ve struggled to get past.

When I first got the results from a blood test that positively showed the genetic mutation, I was relieved. For years, I had been complaining about constant fatigue, bouts of dizziness, aches, and sporadic issues with my breathing. Doctors repeatedly told me that I had an anxiety disorder and placed me on Zoloft to mollify my complaints. They also gave me an inhaler in case my lungs acted up; which, for the record, never, ever worked. Even though I didn’t quite agree with the diagnosis, the medication seemed to help the breathing troubles and for about a year, I came to believe that the doctors were correct. I dismissed the fatigue and the dizziness for stress and hypothesized an inner ear issue. However, when the breathing issues came back, even after almost 2 years of being on Zoloft, I knew something more substantive was going on.

On one particular day, I was having an especially difficult time breathing. It wasn’t that my lungs weren’t working, it’s that my throat kept tightening to the point where it felt like it would close – but never actually did. I was frazzled, annoyed, and felt completely let down down. I had been willing the suck up the aches and discomfort, but the breathing troubles honestly scared me and I didn’t know what to do. My family had also become fairly dismissive of my ongoing complaints, telling me that I was being dramatic and needed more activity in my life to be healthier. But I thought I had things handled and under control; I had done what I was instructed: I took the medication, went to therapy, did yoga, and had a full-time job. What the heck else was I missing?

It was around this time that I had spoken with my aunt about my cousin who had been battling a particularly brutal exposure to mold which was causing substantial chronic symptoms (including chronic fatigue). My aunt had begun to think I was similarly afflicted.

I went to my primary care doctor with this information and lots of heaving. However, when I told her about my cousin, she dismissed the issue for the mere fact that she had never heard of such a thing. She then gave me a prescription for Xanax and essentially told me to go calm down.

The neurotically obedient part of me wanted to do as I was told, but the part of me that did not get better after taking said Xanax, was pissed and wanted answers.

Finding an Alternative

After hearing this story, that same aunt suggested I meet with her naturopath to see if he could provide answers. I was a little hesitant to see someone who didn’t have a MD and questioned his ability to provide real answers. But I was also desperate.

Expecting the doctor to ask purely medical questions, I internally ran through all of my symptoms, ready to provide an accurate timeline of all my unhealthy on-goings. However, for the first 30 minutes all he asked me about was my mental health and the emotional challenges I’d long been battling. At first I thought he was leading me back to the anxiety disorder diagnosis, but instead he ultimately showed me how deeply the trauma of my childhood and early adulthood were continuing to affect me. He also suspected that I had the MTHFR genetic mutation, which would explain the confusing symptoms.  

He told me he could help me build the physical health practices I needed, but that I would never be fully well if I continued to drag the emotional pains along with me. I had briefly mentioned the alcoholism that had killed my step-father when I was 16, the taxing 2 years my parents took to divorce, my mother’s difficult parenting and challenges with NPD and BPD (narcissitic & borderline personality disorder), and that day in 2011 when she told me not to come home. Even though, by that appointment, I had spent at least a year in therapy, those events and issues were still deeply latched to my life and I felt like I was suffocating.

So when the results came in and confirmed that I am homozygous MTHFR C677T (I’ll try to explain what this is in another post), I was relieved. I finally had an answer.

And then what followed, was the crushing impact of defeat.

Working Down the Timeline

For twenty years, I had been trapped in a suppressive household with a mother whose love was inconsistent and had to be earned through an erratic merit system. During those years, I desperately wanted to make my mother happy, and in so wanting, gave piece after piece of myself away to image myself in the form she prefered. Of course, that preference constantly changed and my success was never possible.

It took everything to walk away from the only love I thought I would ever have. For even though her treatment of me was deeply damaging, I never stopped craving her approval.

While that relationship ended abruptly, there was nothing else clean about the cut. For one thing, I had, and continue to work through, an eating disorder and substantial self-loathing. Up until one year ago, I had to keep a blanket over my mirror out of shame for the way I look. I am a 27 year-old woman and I can still feel my mother pinch the skin of my stomach, derisively snark about my “fluffy” attributes, and threaten surgery for an already fixed under-bite because she feared I would become disfigured.

By that appointment though, I had spent some time working through the emotional bruises and thought that I was doing fairly well. Yet, when I realized that having a genetic disorder meant I’d have symptoms for the rest of my life, I felt all the doors I’d shoved open slam shut on me.

As I saw it, this disorder was another prison and that my very short window of freedom was over. I had already given up my entire childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood for my mother and now this health issue was claiming all the years that would follow.

For the following 8 months (about), I had horrible brain fog that wiped out my ability to problem solve, I was drowning in constant fatigue, had deep aches running through my neck and shoulders, could not retain an ounce of new information, lost chunks of my memory, and struggled to understand words when people spoke to me or when I tried to read. Even though we knew about the genetic mutation, we still didn’t (and to this day do not) know the full causation for these symptoms. Nor did we know how long they would last and/if they would return.

Windows Open, Windows Close

Fortunately, the symptoms did lighten up that spring and I was ready to pounce on a better life. That opportunity ended up being in Washington, DC at a climate organization. When I got that job offer, I promised myself that I would fill this opportunity with all that I have and that this window of health would not be for nothing. And so I did. I was the first one in the office and was often the last one to leave. I put in every effort to each of my tasks and strived to be as dependable as I could be. I then carried those habits into the job that followed.

And when the symptoms starting ramping back up last fall (2017), I chose to ignore them, push through, and see how far I could extend my limits. I wasn’t ready for my window to close.

Of course, my window did close on October 26 when I ended up in the ER, tapped to a bag of fluids, and reprimanded by doctors for my very evident symptoms of exhaustion. Once again I felt defeated and angry at the Universe for impeding my ability to live a full life.

But within all of that anger, I sought something that could help me see the situation differently and give me the strength to pull myself together. For although my symptoms are challenging, they are not terminal, and although they are uncomfortable – sometimes substantially so, they are not debilitating.

Willing a Different Perspective

That’s when I decided to start this blog and track my wellness journey. That’s when I knew I was finally ready and fully willing to tackle my whole health.

Here is what I am able see now, that I wasn’t able or willing to, back in 2015: my health is not a prison. It is my opportunity to give my body, mind, and spirit all the love, health, and attention it needs and was deprived of for so long.

To be clear, I am not dismissing the challenges it brings nor the disappointments I’ve experienced and may experience in the future. I am also certainly not saying that this mindset is the right one for anyone else who struggles with their health. But, I see now that I will always have to put my health first, even after 27.7 years of it existing at the very bottom of the priority list. No one (that I know of) has ever put me first and now that gets to be my priority for the rest of my life.

It feels a little weird to go as far as to say that this is a gift – because I would have prefered a nice bouquet of instant confidence or peonies – but I think that’s what this may be.

Today it all feels a little extra poignant as it has been one week since my job ended and I officially began my healing hibernation. In these last few weeks, my co-workers have swarmed around me and provided me with more love, care, and support then I think any other person or group ever has. Their kindness has been a substantial motor of motivation to get my health on track.

Although there is a bit of an abyss ahead of me and my health continues to be a challenge, I am so grateful for this space and time to focus on myself. Between my obsession with Gabby Bernstein, my bi-weekly art therapy sessions, and following the amazing team at Tone It Up, I have all the resources I need to be successful in prioritizing my whole health. I also have a willingness and determination that is no longer tethered to old existing suppression.

So to return to my initial question: What does it take to build the life you want? I don’t know all the steps, but I’ve got the first one down: be willing.

Miss Bow

Reflections of a Philosophically inclined Fitness and Lifestyle Blogger