Best Books of the Half-Year

It’s become an annual tradition for me to reflect, at the year’s mid-point, on my favorite books that I’ve read so far.  Nina Badzin started this and inspired me, and I’m grateful for the touchpoint. You can see my 2016 and 2015 posts here.  I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading and loving so far this year.

My favorite books of 2017, so far:

Fiction

Saints for All Occasions, Courtney Sullivan.  I adored this book, which is about family and faith and secrets and loyalty, and have thought about it daily since I finished it.  Highly, highly recommend.  My review at Great New Books is here.

Commonwealth, Anne Patchett. I have mixed feelings about Patchett’s fiction (Bel Canto is one of my Reader Shame books – I just can’t get into it!) but I really enjoyed Commonwealth.

Conclave, Robert Harris.  I include this mostly to show you that I read a lot of books that you might describe as airport books.  Also, I have many strange interests, including the papal conclave. If those things are both true for you, this story is engrossing.

I clearly need some good novels in my life!  Put another way, I’ve been focusing on the aforementioned airport category (Grisham, Baldacci, Connelley) to the exclusion of much other writing, which I need to remedy.  What fiction have you loved lately?

Non-Fiction

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, Dani Shapiro.  I adored this book, which is, “fundamentally, about what memory means.” It’s also about long marriage, adulthood, and the ways in which our younger selves both shape and echo through us as we age into midlife. My review is here.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs. Another gorgeous, gorgeous memoir, which is about a 39 year old mother facing her own death but also, and more powerfully, a vibrant, funny, glorious book about how to live. My review is here.

The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy. I could not put down this book. Levy’s writing is as urgent as a freight train, full of both candor and power. One caveat is that I found the end strangely indirect, for a book that was so much about looking straight ahead and speaking truth.  But Levy writes beautifully about being a woman in the modern world, and I highly recommend this book.

A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, Stephanie Saldana.  A lovely, luminous memoir of marriage, early motherhood, and Jerusalem.  My review at Great New Books is here.  I loved this but loved Stephanie’s first book,

Between Them: Remembering My Parents, Richard Ford.  This slender recollection is warm and real and I closed it feeling like I had had a truly up-close introduction to Ford’s parents.  It made me consider how Grace and Whit will reflect on the family that framed their childhood, and how they experience Matt’s and my relationship.  A fascinating, salient topic that, at least as far as I’m concerned, is somewhat ill-explored.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, Bill Hayes. I love Oliver Sacks, and loved this loving, intimate portrait of him by his partner, Hayes. This book feels like a long love letter to Oliver, and he emerges from its pages as lovably erudite and intellectual as I imagined.  A wonderful book.

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there’s magic in the climb

I think parenting young children (and old ones, I’ve heard) is a little like climbing Mount Everest. Brave, adventurous souls try it because they’ve heard there’s magic in the climb. They try because they believe that finishing, or even attempting the climb are impressive accomplishments. They try because during the climb, if they allow themselves to pause and lift their eyes and minds from the pain and drudgery, the views are breathtaking. They try because even though it hurts and it’s hard, there are moments that make it worth the hard. These moments are so intense and unique that many people who reach the top start planning, almost immediately, to climb again.

– Glennon Doyle

Thank you to Violet Gaynor, on whose lovely Instagram feed I found these words.

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Tradition and adaptation, metaphor and flying

I have written a lot about traditions, and how they can form the scaffolding of family life. That’s certainly true for us.  For many years our family’s calendar has been dotted with traditions big and small.  As the kids have grown, some of these have fallen by the wayside and others have shifted but remained present.

There’s both tension and the possibility of power, I’ve come to believe, in how we adapt our traditions to fit our changing lives.  Many years ago, I took Grace and Whit to Storyland for a night at the end of the school year.  It was a wonderful trip – so great that we went back the next month.  For several years we did that, and then one year we did something else (a treetop course at Cranmore) and this year we went ziplining.

We got to Gunstock on Saturday morning and signed lots of waivers.  Matt took a pass on ziplining because of his leg, so Grace, Whit and I went up the chairlift together.  As we rode to the top of the mountain, we watched some people pass on the zipline to our left.  I could not believe how high they were or how fast they were going.  I took a deep breath and caught Grace’s eye.  What were we in for?

We ziplined a short distance from the chairlift to the top of the longest, highest zipline of the course.  The kids went together, ahead of me, and I followed them. As we wound up a rickety spiral staircase to the platform I felt dizzy ad paused.

“Are you okay, Mum?” Whit asked me from above.  I nodded, but waited a moment to regain my bearings.

“I’m a little nervous, too,” he whispered to me when I reached the top. I felt the world swirl below us, and standing with my feet further apart than normal, to feel balanced, I reached for my phone to take a photo.

They got ready to go.  The lines soared away from the platform, and with a thumbs up over their shoulders, they did too.  I stood and watched them go, leaping into the great wide open, flying away from me.  The metaphor hit me over the head and I stood alone on the platform, slightly stunned and grateful at the same time.

In a few moments it was my turn.  Channeling their openness, I stood while the attendant hooked me to the zipline, and then I jumped.  And I flew.

When I arrived at the next platform, I saw Grace and Whit standing there, waiting for me, grinning.  I had tears in my eyes as I landed and joined them.  I thought back to another day, years ago, when the three of us flew.

We went to the hotel we have stayed at for so many years, had dinner at our beloved Red Parka Pub, played at the water park, and fell asleep in a small room.  There are few things I love more than the four of us sleeping in one room.

Everyone fell asleep before me, and I lay in the dark room, thinking back to the early Storyland years. They were animate in the room, I felt, and the 5 and 7 year old versions of Whit and Grace floated in my memory.  I miss those years, desperately, but I’m so glad we’ve found a way to keep celebrating who the children are – who the four of us are – right now, and to keep our family rituals alive.

As we drove home on Sunday, Grace noted that she loved our annual celebration trip, and I swallowed hard to hide the tears from my voice when I agreed with her.  Oh, me too.  It is only by releasing our grip on what was that we can fully embrace what is.  The truth of that hit me hard this weekend.  I miss the days that were, but my God, that sorrow isn’t going to get in the way of my grabbing the days that are.

This is ritual at its most powerful, I believe: a way of honoring what was and of celebrating what is.  A reminder of the sturdy underpinning of family life. A confirmation that something bigger than each of us holds us, and a plain say of love. This is who we are, Grace and Whit: a family that honors June each year, and one that trusts that when you jump off a platform into the sky, you’ll fly.

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so wondrously simple

Being yourself seems like the most effortless thing in the world – duh, who else are you going to be? But it’s deceiving, tricky, a summons laden with meandering and failed attempts – and then at last, so wondrously simple.

-Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

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Change

The moment of change is the only poem. – Adrienne Rich

Once again, a time of change. Oh, the change makes music. – James Taylor

I am living in a poem, in a time of glorious music.

Everything is changing. Grace and Whit are both going to new schools after 8 and 10 years respectively at the school around the corner. Grace is leaving for boarding school.  Matt and I are both in new jobs, and mine is in a brand new company.

Literally nothing is the same as it was last year.

And of course so much is the same. Our parents are healthy, as are our siblings. We are surrounded by love and immense good fortune. We still live in the same house, on the same street, and the same tree across the street that I’ve watched for 16 years now is in full-on summer bloom.

We have each other.

But I’ll be honest: what’s new is more present for me than what’s constant. I feel buffeted by change and upheaval, most of all by Grace’s impending departure but by everything else, too. I struggle with change.  I always have.

But now and then there are glimpses of another way of being, and they are as fleeting as they are seductive. Like a bicycle slipping into gear, once in a while I have a sensation of freedom, as I can briefly embody the be-here-now philosophy I wish so desperately was mine all the time. It is as though for a passing moment, I feel permission to just live the moment I’m in, without being paralyzed by my concerns about what is coming. To be clear: even these glimpses are new. I am accustomed to traveling through my experience with a white-knuckle grip on each day, my desire to inhabit the moment frankly equaled by my inability to release my worries about what’s coming.

So it feels like a benediction, or a blessing, to let go of this for a fleeting moment.  Is this what life in the moment really feels like? Maybe this is what sports psychologists refer to as flow. It does remind me of the sudden, startling ease of hitting a ball with a tennis racquet’s sweet spot: everything feels smoother, simpler, easier.

I have no doubt that these moments are grace.

What I don’t quite know is what brings them to me, or whose permission I’m receiving to simply enjoy my 14 year old as she is, rather than fretting overwhelmingly about her moving out.  I wish I could figure out what triggers these moments, since I want to live more that way. Somehow, I suspect that working hard to figure out what it is that allows this grace to pass through me is a lost cause, though, or a fool’s errand.  If anything, these moments of fleeting being-here-now seem to whisper that the secret is in letting go of my grip, not tightening it.

My practice this summer – a brief, shining window before our new formation this fall – will be to simply allow these transcendent experiences to descend, and to welcome them as they come.  I will try not to worry about when I’ll next be allowed to peek into life without the penumbra of what’s coming looming.

I will hear the music of the change.

 

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very lovely

Dear old world’, she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”
~ L.M. Montgomery

I loved Anne as a child, with the particular passion of a red-headed girl finding a kindred spirit, and was delighted to find this beautiful line on Tamara Willems’ lovely blog.

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Commencement

Tomorrow, both children graduate – Whit from sixth grade and Grace from eighth.  At the school they’ve both been at since they were four, sixth grade and eighth grade are inflection points (the other is twelfth grade), so they each have graduation ceremonies.  As you can probably imagine, I’m perpetually in tears these days and expecting an emotional day tomorrow.  I did my last pickup at the gym. I packed the last lunch of my career as a mother. Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  The lasts are coming thick and fast right now, and I’ll be honest, I’m trying to catch my breath and keep my balance.

This time of year always feels this way to me, limned with endings and loss despite its perch at the moment that my favorite season, summer, bursts into reality.  I have written a lot about how this season of ends and beginnings feels for me.  This year the complicated emotions are stronger than ever, with both children moving on (and in particular with Grace leaving for boarding school).

There’s something about the word, commencement, that captures all the conflicting emotions that are bound up in this moment. This moment every year, but perhaps, most of all, this moment in my life right now.  Grace and Whit are, as I’ve written before, taking flight.  I’m so proud I ache, but I’m also keenly aware of something big coming to an end.

So much radiance.  So much sorrow.  Inextricably wound together, twisted through every hour. Tomorrow, we commence.  Onto the next thing, into the onrush of time, keenly aware of all that’s glorious and all that’s lost, always, at the same time.

***

Years ago I described the fleeting nature of time as the black hole around which my whole life circles, the wound that is at the center of all my writing, all my feeling, all my living.  Certainly that seems to be borne out by what it is I write, over and over again.  At the very midpoint of the year, the sunniest, longest days, I find myself battling an encroaching sorrow, an irrefutable sense of farewell.  The proof is in my archives.

The world bursts into riotous bloom, almost as though it is showing off its fecundity.  The days are swollen and beautiful, the air soft, the flowering trees spectacular.  The children gleefully wear shorts to school, the sidewalks are dusted with pollen and petals, and we round the curve of another year.  We start counting down school days, we say goodbye to beloved babysitters who are graduating from college, and I find myself blinking back tears.

Every year, I’m pulled into the whitewater between beginnings and endings that defines this season.  I can barely breathe.

It’s all captured in the event that so many of us attend, year after year, at this time: commencement.  It was my own commencements that marked this season, for years: from grade school, high school, college, graduate school.  And then there was a time when, though I wasn’t personally attending commencements, I felt their presence, sensed the ebb and flow of the school year.  It seems that my spirit and the very blood in my veins will always throb to the cadence of the school year.  And now it is my children who commence, who close a year and begin another, wearing too-long hair and legs, vaguely tentative smiles, and white.

Commencement.  Isn’t this word simply a more elegant way of describing what might be the central preoccupation of my life?  You end and you begin, on the very same day.  You let go of something and while that I-am-falling feeling never goes away, you trust that you’ll land.  And you do, on the doorstep of another beginning, a new phase, the next thing.

No matter how many times I’m caught from the freefall of farewell by a new beginning, though, I still feel the loss.  As much as my head understands that endings are required for them to be beginnings, my heart mourns what is ending.  That a seam of sorrow runs through my every experience is undeniable; it may sound depressing, but I genuinely don’t experience it that way.  It is just part of how I’m wired, and it’s never closer to the surface than right now, as this school year winds down, as we celebrate the beginning that’s wrapped in the end, as we commence.

These words (since the break), were first published in 2013

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a life of noticing

Both poem and painting offer their combined visions – rimed with pathos and irony – as an enduring truth of life: the world often doesn’t notice us. This understanding has been a crucial urge for most of what I’ve written in fifty years. Mine has been a life of noticing and being a witness. Most writers’ lives are.

– Richard Ford, Between Them

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Things I Love Lately

Finishing a Memoir with Months to Live – I adored The Bright Hour, and this piece about the book’s writer, Nina Riggs, just took my breath away. Nina is so brilliantly captured in these reflections by Tita, and her vivid, generous approach to life leaps off the page.  Read the piece, and read the book, I urge you.

Dear Girls, Life is Too Short for Crappy Friends – This contains wisdom whether you’re a teeanger or a mid-life adult (or, probably, beyond). Grace is thick in the heart of figuring out what friendships means, and I am remembering all the angst of those years. I keep promising her she will find her people, and I know she will.

Locating Happiness – Thank you to Amanda Magee for drawing my attention to this gorgeous piece.  “What is it about middle age? I do not seek out happiness as a goal or object and yet it comes to me in innumerable small ways, as long as my eyes are open and my heart is pliable.”  Yes.  This.  Exactly this.

My favorite chocolate chip cookies – I know I’ve shared this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, before, but it remains my all-time favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe.  I make these all the time, and they literally never fail. I make them with regular chocolate chips, or a mix of dark and regular chocolate chips (not chocolate chunks).

What are you reading, loving, and thinking about lately?  Books on my list include: Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning (Claire Dederer), Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (Sheryl Sandberg), Her: A Memoir (Christa Parravani), and Deadfall (Linda Fairstein). What else should I be sure to read this summer?

I write these Things I Love posts approximately monthly.  You can find them all here.

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Look for that pinprick of light

This is your assignment.

Feel all the things. Feel the hard things. The inexplicable things, the things that make you disavow humanity’s capacity for redemption. Feel all the maddening paradoxes. Feel overwhelmed, crazy. Feel uncertain. Feel angry. Feel afraid. Feel powerless. Feel frozen. And then FOCUS.

Pick up your pen. Pick up your paintbrush. Pick up your damn chin. Put your two calloused hands on the turntables, in the clay, on the strings. Get behind the camera. Look for that pinprick of light. Look for the truth (yes, it is a thing—it still exists.)

Focus on that light. Enlarge it. Reveal the fierce urgency of now. Reveal how shattered we are, how capable of being repaired. But don’t lament the break. Nothing new would be built if things were never broken. A wise man once said: there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Get after that light.

This is your assignment.

-Wendy MacNaughton and Courtney E. Martin

I love these gorgeous words that I found on Being Rudri.

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