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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

A few weekends ago, I hopped on a plane – still a novelty after nearly 18 months of not going much of anywhere. I was headed to a new-to-me destination: the Twin Cities. I’ve been taking a writing class through ModernWell with Nina Badzin and others during this pandemic year, and when my classmates started planning an in-person meetup, I knew I had to be there.

Nina and I have been friends online for years, but we’d never met in person, and I’d never met any of the other women in our class. But in some ways we know each other deeply: we have spent the past year meeting via Zoom on Tuesday mornings, exchanging updates about what we’ve been reading and watching, then discussing writing prompts and craft, and sharing our writing with one another. I don’t know all the names of their kids or where they went to college, but I know the soul-deep insights they’ve shared in class these last months. In turn, they have been sounding boards for me as I processed my pandemic grief, post-divorce loneliness and various job hunt woes.

My friend Debra picked me up from the airport and took me straight to Lake Harriet for lunch and a run (see top photo). “I feel like you need to run a city lake while you’re here,” she had told me. She was determined to show me the best parts of her hometown, which included that lakeside run, a bike ride to the cute little town of Excelsior on Saturday morning, a long walk around Lake Minnetonka (shades of Betsy Ray!), and several delicious meals both out and at home. (Debra has a fun cooking Instagram, and I loved watching the magic happen in real time in her kitchen.)

I didn’t care about most touristy things (we skipped the Mall of America, for example) – but I had to make a pilgrimage to a certain street corner downtown.

I went through a serious Mary Tyler Moore phase after moving to Boston. I watched all seven seasons of the show over the course of a year, and I drew strength and comfort (and a lot of laughs) from Mary’s adventures in Minneapolis and her close bonds with her friends and colleagues. So of course I had to go pay homage, and throw a hat (which I borrowed from Nina) in the air.

The rest of the weekend was filled with eating and talking: so many stories to tell and catch up on, so many delicious dishes to sample. Debra and Nina took me to the charming Excelsior Bay Books (after brunch at Coalition) on Saturday, and then Debra whipped up a fabulous happy-hour spread for the whole group before we all went out to dinner. I was out of words every single night by the time I went to bed. And it was wonderful.

Just as Debra intended, I was utterly charmed by the Twin Cities, and by meeting her and my other ladies in person. I’ll definitely be back.

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Tuesdays are for Zoom calls with Nina or Mindy and others from across time zones. We wave, trade news, write together, share our work. They give me wisdom, joy, connection, solidarity. 

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Hey, y’all. It’s March (it has been March for a year) and I need a writing challenge. So this month I’m writing a 31-word blog post each day, about 31 things that are getting me through. Today’s is longer because of this introduction, but I’m hoping to spark some creativity with this format and shake myself out of my latest funk.

Here’s the first one: Trader Joe’s daffodils.

A shot of yellow on my kitchen counter—I can’t resist grabbing a bunch at $1.79 each. They remind me that not all luxuries are expensive, and brighter days are coming. 

More tomorrow.

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One of the toughest parts of the pandemic, for me, has been the isolation. I live alone, was working full-time from home until I was furloughed in May, and have not seen my family (all of whom live in Texas or other far-flung states) at all this year. I’ve still been seeing my guy (thank goodness) and a few local friends, but there are a lot of empty hours to fill, and even when I have work to do, I’ve been missing community.

Back in September, my friend Nina Badzin posted about an online writing class she was teaching through ModernWell, which usually happens in person but had moved to Zoom for the fall. I’ve known Nina online for years (we both used to write for the now-defunct Great New Books), but we’ve never (yet) met in person. But I loved the idea of a safe, fun, creative space on Tuesday mornings, a chance to write in community. I signed up, and y’all, it has been life-giving.

There are around a dozen women, mostly Midwesterners (a few of us live elsewhere) of varying ages, careers/life situations and writing experience. Many of us love to cook, and we’ve had a few cookbook discussions alongside the writing chat. All of us love books and enjoy a well-written TV show (I think I’m the last one who hasn’t yet watched The Queen’s Gambit). Everyone has been warm and welcoming, and I’ve so loved seeing their faces on Zoom every week. Our focus is writing, but bits of our lives creep in around the edges – one woman’s newborn granddaughter, another’s house renovation, another’s passion for beautifully wrapped gifts.

We go around and share what we’ve been up to creatively – both what we’ve been writing/creating and how we’ve been filling the well. Nina gives us a prompt or exercise, usually with a sample essay by a pro, and we turn off our cameras and write for a while. Then we take turns sharing our work. The results are rough, of course, but they are full of gems – astonishing warmth and humor and vivid details, whether we’re writing about our current lives or memories from way back.

In a time when I’ve struggled to find both community and silver linings, this group has been a major source of both. We’re taking a few weeks off for the holidays, but we’ll be back in the New Year, and I’m so glad.

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July has been a long hot month – and clearly books are one of my coping mechanisms, as always. Here’s what I have been reading:

Other Words for Home, Jasmine Warga
I flew through this sweet middle-grade novel in verse, narrated by Jude, who leaves her native Syria (with her mother) to live with relatives in Cincinnati. She misses her father, brother and best friend terribly, but gradually adjusts to her new life. Lovely.

The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, Kate Hattemer
It’s April of Jemima Kincaid’s senior year and she’s burning to do something big to leave a legacy at her tony prep school. But she’s also dealing with teenage stuff: learning to drive, an inconvenient crush, friction with her best friend. A fun novel with a likable, flawed protagonist learning to confront her own privilege. (Warning: some truly cringeworthy teenage sex.)

Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team, Cecilia Aragon
Bullied as a child in her small Indiana town, Aragon found her way to a career in computer science, but still struggled with crippling fear and anxiety. A coworker’s love for flying ignited her own, and she threw herself into her new hobby, eventually competing on the U.S. Aerobatic Team. This straightforward, fascinating memoir chronicles her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 22).

Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World, Osheta Moore
Moore is a wise, compassionate voice on Instagram and elsewhere, and this, her first book, is about pursuing shalom – God’s vision for true peace. It’s part memoir, part theology, part real talk. Warm and thoughtful.

Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
I picked up this lesser-known classic by the author of the Betsy-Tacy series for a reread. Emily Webster is one of my favorite heroines: thoughtful, sensitive and brave. She struggles with loneliness after finishing high school and feeling stuck in her small town, but she learns to “muster her wits” and build a life for herself. I love her story so much.

Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto, Kate Sekules 
Mending has existed as long as clothing has, and Sekules is here for the visible mending revolution. Packed with clothing/mending history (chiefly in the West), practical tips for sourcing vintage/mendable clothing, an extensive stitch guide and lots of snark. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 8).

House of Light, Mary Oliver
I’ve been rereading Oliver’s poems over breakfast. They are “lovely, dark and deep,” to quote Frost. Most of them are set in the woods or ponds. She is so good at paying attention.

Deadlock, Sara Paretsky
When V.I. Warshawski’s cousin, a former hockey star, dies under mysterious circumstances, V.I. begins to investigate. She finds herself drawn into a complex case involving corruption in the shipping industry. I like her snark and smarts and will keep going with the series.

Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed
Twelve-year-old Amal dreams of becoming a teacher, though her family struggles as her mother deals with postpartum depression. But then Amal unwittingly offends the village landlord, and is forced to work as a servant in his house. She’s determined to find a way out, though. Bittersweet and inspiring, with a great cast of characters.

Bitter Medicine, Sara Paretsky
In V.I. Warshawski’s fourth adventure, she’s investigating the death of a young pregnant woman, a family friend. What she finds is potential malpractice, corruption and gang involvement – not to mention her smarmy lawyer ex. I especially loved the role played here by her elderly neighbor, Mr. Contreras.

Wild Words: Rituals, Routines, and Rhythms for Braving the Writer’s Path, Nicole Gulotta
My friend Sonia recommended this book months ago, and I’ve been reading it slowly all summer. Gulotta is wise, warm and practical, and this book (organized by “season”) has been deeply helpful for me.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal, G. Willow Wilson
Kamala Khan is an ordinary teenager, until she’s suddenly invested with strange powers she can’t quite control. A girlfriend lent me this first volume of the adventures of a young superhero growing into herself. The plot is a bit thin, but it was fun.

Blood Shot, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski isn’t crazy about going back to her South Chicago neighborhood. But a high school basketball reunion and an odd request from a friend pull her back in. Soon she’s investigating chemical corruption, chasing a friend’s (unknown) birth father and trying not to get killed. This was a grim one, but (see above) I am hooked on V.I.’s adventures.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident and Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Like millions of Americans, I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a lot of reading, listening and processing. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the ensuing protests, and the waves of activism and helpful resources popping up everywhere have all been rightfully demanding my attention.

I’m a few chapters into White Fragility (“like all the other white people,” my friend Ally joked last week). I’m listening to podcast interviews with Black leaders, finding Black-owned businesses to support and following new-to-me accounts on Instagram run by Black folks. (One of my favorites: Black Librarians, which highlights – what else? – Black librarians doing excellent work in their field.)

It’s tempting to think that is enough: that exposing myself to new ideas, information and voices will root out my own biases. It will help, of course, but it is not nearly enough. I keep thinking, too, about a poem I found back in early 2016: Veronica Patterson’s “A Charm Against the Language of Politics.”

Patterson’s poem begins:

Say over and over the names of things,
the clean nouns: weeping birch, bloodstone, tanager,
Banshee damask rose.

Patterson’s poem talks about pleasant things, beautiful things: spiderwebs, apples, okra, calendula. Racism and violence are not nearly as appealing, but they are real, and we have to stop ignoring them.

If we are to face racism and work to end it, we must name it, and that means naming a host of other things: specific laws and policies that discriminate against Black people; instances of violence and murder (historical and present-day); our own sometimes-hidden biases against (various) people who do not look like us. It also means, for me, naming my own whiteness, and working to understand how it has shaped me.

In conversations with friends and family, I am trying to stop vaguely referring to “everything that’s going on.” If I mean my ongoing anxieties about the coronavirus pandemic and states reopening, I say that. If I mean the sadness, outrage and drinking-from-a-firehose overwhelm of trying to process all this new information about race and racism, I say that. Sometimes I think about Albus Dumbledore, gravely reminding Harry, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

I was taught to ignore or sidestep race, especially the racial identities of brown and black people, and thus to ignore racism (or insist that it had been solved). But we cannot hope to solve a problem we don’t name. So, for me, it starts (in part) with naming.

Where are you finding yourselves these days, in the work of acknowledging and working to end racism in the U.S.? I’m still overwhelmed (and ashamed at how long it’s taking me to catch up), but I’m here for the work. Let’s learn together.

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This January has felt years long. But it’s finally (almost) over. Here’s what I have been reading, on a whirlwind trip to NYC (I came home early) and since then:

The Henna Artist, Alka Joshi
After fleeing her abusive husband, Lakshmi has made a name for herself doing elaborate henna designs for Jaipur’s wealthy women. But the arrival of her teenage sister upends her carefully constructed world, and the secrets it’s built on. An evocative novel of a woman fighting to make her own way in 1950s India. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 3).

Code Name Hélène, Ariel Lawhon
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was an Australian socialite who became one of World War II’s most daring, dangerous spies. Lawhon’s fourth novel explores her career, her heroics in France toward the end of the war, and her deep love for her French husband. I’ve read a lot of stories about badass female spies, but this one is great: powerful, fast-paced, heartbreaking and stylish. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 31).

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, ed. Glory Edim
This collection comprises 21 brief, powerful essays on what it means to be a black woman (and the books that helped shape these particular black women), plus several lists of book recommendations. My TBR just exploded, both because of the essays and the book lists. Well worth reading.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
This series grows with every book, and I love this one for its new elements and characters (Tonks! Luna!), and the emotional heft of the ending. (Also: Fred and George Weasley at their finest.) This sets up so much of what’s coming in the next two books, and Harry (though he is so angsty) does a lot of growing up.

Agatha Oddly: Murder at the Museum, Lena Jones
Agatha Oddly is back on the case–investigating a murder at the British Museum and its possible links to a disused Tube station. The setup is a bit of a stretch, but Agatha is a great character (I love her sidekicks/friends, too) and this was a fun adventure. Found at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC.

Running: A Love Story, Jen A. Miller
I read one of Miller’s running essays in the New York Times a while back, and liked her voice. I blew through this memoir in one day: it’s breezy and accessible. I got tired of reading about her terrible romantic decisions, but the running parts were worthwhile.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
My friend Lisa recommended this book since I am navigating lots of change (hello, post-divorce transition). Sandberg lost her husband suddenly in 2015, and this book is her account of moving through grief, plus lots of research-backed strategies for building resilience (my word for 2020) after trauma and sadness. Practical, wise and “not too heavy,” as Lisa said. The right book at the right time for me.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Harry and crew are back at Hogwarts: navigating grief, worrying about Lord Voldemort and (oh yeah) dealing with the usual teenage angst. Despite the increasing darkness, this is really the last book where they get to be normal teenagers: playing Quidditch, sneaking around the castle, making romantic missteps. (So. Much. Snogging.) I also love Harry’s lessons with Dumbledore and his gradual coming to terms with what he’s facing, with so much courage and love.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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I love a well-crafted poetry collection as much as the next reader. But most often, I’m hankering for a story when I read. True or fictional, I want a compelling narrative, well told. Fortunately, many poets have turned their wordsmithing skills to prose, and their novels and memoirs are some of my favorites.

Marisa de los Santos began her career with the poetry collection From the Bones Out, but has found major success with her fiction, including Love Walked InBelong to Me; and I’ll Be Your Blue Sky. Her prose is simple, warmhearted and truly lovely, as are many of her characters. (I reread those three novels again this spring, when I was heartbroken and badly in need of comfort and hope.)

Former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith has published four books of poetry, including the 2019 collection Wade in the Water. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, which my friend Colleen gave me a while back, chronicles Smith’s childhood in California, her deep and loving (and sometimes fraught) relationship with her mother, and her journey toward poet as vocation. Her prose is as luminous and (sometimes) as sharp-edged as her poems.

Brian Doyle, the late editor of Portland magazine, wrote anything and everything: poems, prose poems, rambling essays, rollicking or thoughtful novels like Chicago and Mink River, both of which I adored. I’ll read any and all of his work, though my absolute favorite is his essay on how he became a writer. (Also: I reviewed an essay collection he edited a few years ago, and he wrote me a brief, lovely email of thanks, which I still have.)

Poet Ross Gay (Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude) spent his 43rd year capturing ordinary joyful moments almost every day, and spinning them into “essayettes” that became his collection The Book of Delights. Like the subject matter, the result is delightful–both the mosaic of quotidian, unexpected pleasures, and Gay’s commentary on them.

For readers who appreciate a well-turned phrase and an engaging story arc, poets who write prose offer the best of both literary worlds.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it appeared last week. 

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Sometimes, for my day job, I get to sit in on clinics, performances or masterclasses and write about them for Berklee’s website. Once in a while, I get a little starstruck: we get some seriously talented folks here.

Last week, I listened to singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, best known for “Mercy Now,” as she talked to our students about her music, her struggles with addiction, the restaurant she used to run in Boston, and the co-writing work she’s recently done with veterans and their spouses.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could, soaking up every word Gauthier delivered in her raspy Louisiana drawl and welling up when she played “Mercy Now.” She’s a truth-teller, a storyteller, a rough-edged and empathetic presence, and I could have listened to her all afternoon.

If you’d like, you can read the story and see a few photos on Berklee Now.

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Like many people I know, online and off, I’ve spent the past week beginning to mourn Rachel Held Evans‘ death.

Rachel came across my radar nearly a decade ago, just before she released her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. She was already writing online about faith in a way I’d rarely seen before: asking hard questions, wrestling with the tenets of the Christianity she’d grown up with and the layers of (often frustrating) evangelical messages attached to it.

After a warm email exchange, Rachel sent me an advance copy of Monkey Town. I read it avidly and found myself nodding at almost every page. Our experiences, as women raised in southern evangelical churches around the same time, were strikingly similar, and she rendered hers so well.

I kept reading Rachel’s blog, sometimes tweeting about her work or to/with her, for years afterward. I watched her grow bolder and more powerful in calling out the abuses of power (and abuse of many other kinds) perpetrated by churches and church leaders. She had the energy for the kind of online engagement I often shrink from, but I was (am) in awe of her voice and the way she used it. She wrote three other books, all of which I read and found well worth reading. She was no plaster saint: I watched her speak in impatience and anger sometimes, and I watched her listen and apologize and try to do better.

Rachel believed, fiercely, in the kind of Love that makes room for resurrection and redemption for all people. She championed the voices of women and LGBT people in the church. She made space for so many of us to grieve and doubt and ask questions – especially those who are refugees from a certain kind of evangelicalism, but who have not been able to stop wrestling with this story. She admitted, always, that she did not have all the answers.

We were all hoping and praying Rachel would get better after she went into the hospital with an infection a few weeks ago. My heart aches for her husband and two small children, her parents, and all those who knew and loved her. (Like Rachel, I am one of two sisters who are very different but love one another deeply, and I especially hurt for her sister Amanda.)

I’ve been amazed, in the last week, by how many people in different parts of my life have spoken about Rachel and what she meant to them. We miss her deeply, already. She was smart and fierce and thoughtful, kind and funny and faithful and brave. I never got to meet her in person, but she was my friend. May she rest in deep peace and love.

(Image from Rachel’s site)

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