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Posts Tagged ‘courage’

We are halfway through April (how??), and I’m mostly able to focus on books again. The days feel both long and short and somehow suspended – time is moving differently, I suspect, for many of us. But I’m still reading, and here are the books I’ve been enjoying:

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, Maggie Smith
Maggie’s poetry and “keep moving” notes speak right to my heart. This collection combines some of those notes with longer essays about dealing with loss, grief, upended expectations, and the surprising new spaces created by upheaval. She and I are both recently divorced, but I believe these essays will resonate with many people’s experiences. Wise and honest and so lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 6 – it was originally May 5).

Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, Maggie Downs
Downs undertook a trip around the world as her mother was slipping into late-stage Alzheimer’s: she wanted to see and do all the things her mother never got to do. She has some rather harrowing adventures (and stays in lots of grubby hostels), but gains a few hard-won insights about her mother and herself. Compelling and moving, for fans of travel memoir and self-discovery. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 12).

American Royals, Katharine McGee
What if George Washington had been the first king of America? What would his 21st-century descendants look like, and how would they rule? That’s the premise of this fun YA novel (first in a series), which follows Princess Beatrice (future queen) and her siblings as they navigate the expectations that come with their crowns. Witty, juicy and so much fun – a perfect distraction for these times.

The Paris Hours, Alex George
Paris, 1927: the lives of four ordinary people intertwine on one extraordinary day. A struggling artist, an Armenian refugee, Marcel Proust’s former maid and a grieving journalist are all searching for different things, but their paths cross and recross in fascinating ways. With cameos by Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and others. I have read a lot of Paris novels, and am glad I picked this one up: it was really engaging. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 5).

Waterlight: Selected Poems, Kathleen Jamie
My friend Roxani has raved about Jamie’s essays, and I picked this poetry collection up at the library. Some of it, especially the poems written in Scots, didn’t really work for me, but some of them are melancholy and lovely.

Of Mutts and Men, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie are back on the case – this one involving a hydrologist who was murdered, a vineyard perched in a strange place, and a lawyer who might be up to something. Chet (the dog) is a great narrator, and I was so glad to escape into this series again. To (maybe) review for Shelf Awareness (out July 7).

Last Train to Key West, Chanel Cleeton
As a hurricane bears down on Key West in 1935, the paths of three very different women – Cuban newlywed Mirta, former New York society girl Elizabeth, and battered wife Helen – intersect in interesting ways. I like Cleeton’s fiction about the Perez family and this was a solid historical novel. (Also the first ebook I’d read in quite a while.) To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 16).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstores, Brookline Booksmith and Trident.

What are you reading?

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thrive heart dish shelf

My one little word for 2019 is thrive.

I was pretty sure it would be my word back in January, when I was wrapping up my reflections on grit, my word for 2018, and wondering what was next. I kept coming up to thrive and backing away from it. I was – I am – scared of what it might mean, the choices and changes it might require of me. But it dug in, quiet but insistent, and it wouldn’t leave me alone.

In the wake of a year that required so much grit, I wanted something more vibrant, more exciting – and thrive means, variously, to grow vigorously. To flourish. To walk forward unafraid. It’s tied to courage, as most of my words seem to be, but it also speaks of growth, of new possibilities, even of joy.

This has been a year of enormous challenge and change, and it’s not nearly over. There is a lot of grief and pain, a lot of asking questions and admitting hard truths. I started seeing a therapist in March, and I’ve been writing and running and talking with my people about all those things. I’ve generally had the sense that I need to reckon with what has been before (or at least while) beginning to ask what might be next. What it might mean to thrive, in this next chapter of my life.

I finally ordered a thrive talisman heart from Liz Lamoreux in early May, and it has sat on my bedside table (in three different apartments) ever since, a gentle reminder of what I’m hoping for. Thrive lived deep under the surface for a while this year, but like the plants I love so well, it is pushing up through the soil, coming up into the light.

As you know if you’ve spent much time here, I’ve been following a word each year since 2010, starting with brave, which took me on all sorts of journeys, including a cross-country move from Texas to Boston. I’m interested to see where thrive takes me, through the rest of this year and possibly beyond.

Are you following a word this year? If so, what is it teaching you?

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fear choice mountain lyric frame

Last week, I saw an Instagram post from a local friend about a folk concert happening that night in Cambridge. An hour later, my husband called: “Want to go?”

I’d usually say no to anything that started at 9:30 on a Tuesday night (and oh, was I exhausted the next day). But I said yes, and we went. The Arcadian Wild puts on a good show, but the music wasn’t even my favorite part: it was the serendipity.

My friend who invited us knows the two guys in the band from way back: her husband worked with both of them during his youth-minister days in Florida. But it also turns out that Lincoln, the mandolinist, is the son of a couple who are close to some other friends of mine. I texted my friend Frankie to let her know where we were, and whom we were hearing. (She responded with delight.)

As the evening went on, I realized something else: the photo above, which I snapped during a visit to Frankie’s house in West Texas months ago, is a lyric from their song “Rain Clouds.” (I’d been struck by the words, but forgot to ask her about their origin.)

I’ve been gone from Abilene, where I spent my undergraduate (and several more) years, for a while now. But I still go through there at least once a year, and keep in regular touch with many friends from that community. So many of my stories, even now, begin or end in Abilene. And this one struck me as especially sweet: that a line about courage and fear, in the middle of a song about love and friendship, was the latest thread connecting my two lives.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been humming that song ever since.

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tulips red back bay garden

Give me a garden full of strong, healthy creatures, able to stand roughness and cold without dismally giving in and dying. I never could see that delicacy of constitution is pretty, either in plants or women.

—Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth and Her German Garden

I was searching last week for that von Arnim quote on tulips, because it is tulip season in the Public Garden and I agree with von Arnim: they are my favorite. While double-checking that quote, I came across these lines, and was immediately struck by them: yes.

I love looking at the graceful potted orchids at my florist’s shop, but as Anne Shirley has said, I want flowers I can live with. Instead of sensitive hothouse orchids, give me this:

crocuses rock light flowerbed

Give me the crocuses, pushing their purple and golden spears up through the snow at the end of winter. Give me the daffodils, slender but steely, dollops of bright gold against crusted snowbanks and worn-out winter dirt. Give me the lipstick-pink tulip magnolias, petals winging their way off the ends of their branches like butterflies, and the blush-pink apple and cherry blossoms, ruffled and gorgeous even in the rain.

tulip magnolia tree bloom blue sky

Give me the tulips, holding up their vivid cups to sun, rain, brisk spring winds or anything else nature might throw at them. Give me the lilacs, budding even now as the nights persist chilly, and the shock of yellow forsythia, and the shy, trailing hellebores in cream and mauve and green. Give me the blue scilla dotting the ground, the blaze of azaleas and rhododendrons, the wild violets showing their faces here and there along the river trail.

scilla flowers blue

Give me, too, friends of stalwart courage and fighter hearts, those who don’t run away when life gets messy or tough or complicated. Give me a band of strong women who will bolster me up, and accept my help when it’s my turn to do the same. And give me a lion heart so I don’t fail those same friends, a fierce resolve and bold kindness to stand with them and for them, and for myself, when I need it.

Amen.

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Ivey book slippers twinkle lights

Among explorers, hunters and fishermen, Alaska was long perceived as a man’s world. Women have often had to fight for the chance to love this harsh, beautiful land and prove they can handle its challenges. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I’ve ended up reading a spate of books about it recently – all written by, and featuring, strong women.

Sophie Forrester, military wife and aspiring photographer, is initially denied her chance to see Alaska when her husband Allen is assigned to explore the Yukon Territory in 1885. But she faces her own challenges at the barracks in Vancouver, and (mild spoiler) does eventually get to see Alaska. Eowyn Ivey tells Sophie’s story in her stunning second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World. I raved about this book earlier this winter – my first five-star read of 2019.

For memoirist and obituary writer Heather Lende, Alaska is home: she’s spent decades living and working there. Her three books (If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs; Find the Good) offer a welcome balance to Alaska’s lonely wildness: the warm, colorful community of fellow residents that is necessary for survival.

Kristin Knight Pace ended up in Alaska almost by accident, as a heartbroken divorcee. But her initial five-month stint turned into a decade, and now she runs a dog kennel with her husband. She chronicles the wonder, challenges and the grit required to complete two storied 1,000-mile dog races (the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest) in This Much Country. (I was particularly gripped by the contrast between her Alaskan life and her childhood in suburban Fort Worth, Texas.)

Adrienne Lindholm was unprepared for the rigors of backcountry life when she moved to Alaska after college. Nearly two decades later, she’s carved out a home for herself and wrestled with fundamental questions about identity and motherhood. Her luminous memoir, It Happened Like This, chronicles her journeys out and back in, exploring her efforts to live and thrive in a gorgeous, demanding inner and outer landscape. (I read Lindholm’s book in Spain last summer – a different kind of gorgeous and demanding landscape, at least for me.)

I originally reviewed three of these books and wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness for Readers, where it ran last week.

 

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Katie ww run selfie trail

I know, I know: it’s the second week of January and everyone is all new year new you new habits new word. A couple of friends (and my husband) have already asked if I have a word for 2019. This is not surprising, because by now I generally do. (I often find Susannah Conway’s free Find Your Word exercises helpful, in case you’re still searching for yours. Not sponsored; just sharing a resource I’ve enjoyed.)

But as I said to Roxanne last week, in some ways I’ve still been wrapping up the year past. Not wallowing in nostalgia, exactly: 2018 was a wild, unsettling, hard and heavy – though also joyous – year. It was full of (more) transition, personally and professionally, and as Jen keeps reminding me, it takes a while for these changes to settle into our bodies and our souls. (One of those changes is inked visibly onto my skin now: just before Christmas, I finally got that brave tattoo I’d been thinking about for over a year.)

My one little word for 2018, which proved more apt than I could have known, was grit. And while I haven’t written about it here for months, I carried it close to my heart (and in the treads of my running shoes) all year.

heart sneakers trail

Grit, for me, was often about doing what had to be done: staring down yet another work crisis, sending out resumes and email queries after I lost my job, keeping up with dishes and laundry and other daily-life details. It was also – to my great surprise and delight – about digging deeper physically: throwing myself into Monday night boot camps, and pushing myself to run farther, faster and more often than I ever expected. I have become, in the last year, a runner, and I love what that habit is making of me.

Far harder than the to-do-list type of grit – or even the physical kind, which has often been its own reward – is the emotional grit sometimes required to keep steering through life. I am not the sort of person who weathers storms – internal or external – with undisturbed equilibrium. I go on, as Rilla Blythe says, “but not calmly – I rage and cry.” I handle change, but I do it slowly. I have a long runway. I am strong, but I am not invulnerable. I often need a minute (or a long run, a cup of tea, a listening ear, or all of the above) before I can pull it together and move forward.

I’m learning that grit can include all these self-care moves, instead of being the white-knuckled thing that replaces them. I am learning to ask for what I need, and that, too, takes grit. But then – as Rilla also says – “when it’s over I vow I’ll show them.” And this year, I have kept going: down the river trail, through the email inbox, back and forth across the Charles River about a thousand times, deep into the territory of my own heart.

The work of grit isn’t finished for me. I suspect it may never be. The thing with some words, like brave, is that they get under your skin (or, eventually, into it), and keep tugging you toward a stronger version of yourself. I think grit is the same. I’ll be following a new word this year, but grit will still be there, pulling me forward into whatever’s next. I’m glad to have it with me, whether I’m running or commuting or simply walking forward into each day.

Did you follow a word for 2018? What did it look like for you?

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brave necklace coral scarf

“Do you have the courage to go alone?” Mrs. Whatsit asked.

“No.” Meg’s voice was flat. “But it doesn’t matter.” She turned to her father and Calvin. “You know it’s the only thing to do.”

—Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

I picked up A Wrinkle in Time again a few weeks ago, after the hubs and I went to see Ava DuVernay’s multiracial, star-studded, visually dazzling new adaptation.

I had some reservations about the film, especially the adult casting. I had trouble forgetting that I was watching Reese Witherspoon and Oprah instead of Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which. But I loved Storm Reid’s turn as Meg Murry: lonely, stubborn, fiercely loving, at once brave and fearful – which is to say, utterly human.

The film inspired me to dive back into the book. And from the first line – “It was a dark and stormy night” – I was swept up again by the story of Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace. It’s odd and mysterious and wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed it before. But this time, these particular lines stopped me in my tracks.

I’ve been following the word brave and its fellows – courage, resilience – for a long time now. My word for this year, also related, is grit. Meg’s words, and especially her actions, reminded me of my word, and the lines in Paula McLain’s novel Love and Ruin about the young soldiers who relied on grit when their courage failed them.

Meg realizes, in this moment, that it doesn’t matter if she feels brave enough to go and rescue Charles Wallace. She simply has to do it. Like all my other heroines, she understands that going forward is the only thing to do. And she does it – though she’s terrified. (Spoiler alert: she succeeds, and makes it back home, along with her loved ones. But it’s the doing – not the outcome – that matters.)

Sometimes, like Meg, I don’t know if I have the courage to do hard things. But it doesn’t always matter: they’ve often got to be done. Sometimes grit is what’s left when your courage fails you, when you can’t summon the fire of bravery or even a glowing ember. In those times, grit provides the traction needed to move forward.

I love so many things about A Wrinkle in Time: the whimsy and magic, the deep love the characters have for each other, the celebration of light and hope amid unimaginable darkness. But I’m holding these words especially close as I walk through a blustery, fitful spring. Meg and her creator, Madeleine, both knew a thing or two about grit. And so do I.

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the long run book snow menzies-pike

My one little word for this year is grit. Two and a half months in, it’s already proven quite apt.

I’m running several times a week these days, and that takes grit. Getting myself out onto the trail after a long workday can be tough, but it’s rewarding.

There’s also the literal grit that collects in the treads of my running shoes (and, subsequently, on my kitchen floor). And the grit required to power through the boot-camp workouts I’ve been doing on Monday nights with Erin and a handful of other women. We do bursts of cardio – high knees, jumping jacks – interspersed with lunges and squats, weight training and push-ups.

Sometimes – I won’t lie – it’s hard. But it, too, is rewarding.

I’ve been on the lookout for words about grit, and I found the first ones, fittingly, in Catriona Menzies-Pike’s wonderful memoir, The Long Run.

Like me, Menzies-Pike is a lifelong bookworm who never expected to become a runner. Also like me, she fell in love with the sport and was amazed at the changes it wrought in her body and soul. She writes about pushing through, trying and failing, building up endurance and coming face to face with her own limits. “While I might not be sporty, I sure as hell was gritty,” she asserts. I’ve thought about that line during a couple of hard runs on the trail.

I came across more words on grit in Love and Ruin, Paula McLain’s stunning novel about journalist Martha Gellhorn and her tempestuous love affair with Ernest Hemingway. The book contains many beautiful, blazingly honest passages about love and loss and war.

Early, on, as Gellhorn talks to a group of republican rebels during the Spanish Civil War, she realizes: “they didn’t have an endless supply of bravery, because no one ever did. When courage failed them, they would find a way to stand their ground anyway and fight on spirit alone. They had that in spades—grit rather than bravery.”

The word grit caught my eye, as did the comparison to courage: these two things as related, but distinct. Much later in the book, Gellhorn—now working as a war correspondent in besieged Finland—says simply, “I didn’t feel brave, though. It wasn’t bravery when you did what you had to do.”

Grit is doing what you have to do, and also what you know you should do. For me, it’s often about the daily tasks that require not only courage, but stick-to-it-iveness. Sometimes I fail at these, or run out of steam, but I’m doing my best to keep going.

So often, these days, grit is required: to do my work and take care of my people and simply keep on going. Good words help with that, and I’m grateful for these.

Are you following a word or phrase this year? How’s it going?

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heart sneakers trail

My one little word for 2018 is grit.

It took me a while to find it, and even longer to figure out what to say about it. I tried out a few other possibilities (while reflecting on the unexpected places magic took me in 2017). Nothing quite seemed to fit, until I remembered that grit sneaked its way in alongside magic last summer.

Grit is closely related to courage, which of course bears a deep connection to my longtime word, brave. It is ordinary, daily, sometimes deeply mundane: it is, quite often, the opposite of glamorous, though I think it can sometimes be magical.

Grit is the tiny pebbles that stick in the treads of my running shoes after an hour or two spent on the river trail. It is the crumbs I sweep off the kitchen table into my hand, over and over again. It is the commitment to the daily details that make up a life, to showing up and taking care and paying attention, even when you’d rather be anywhere else.

It’s been a year (and counting) of tremendous, often shattering change, which has rearranged my internal furniture in ways I didn’t expect. Each of those changes – the continuing fallout from the election, so many challenges at work, even the move this summer to a new apartment I love – have required copious amounts of grit. And I know there are more changes ahead in 2018. I’m making a couple (mostly exercise-related); I’ve been warned about a few (mostly work-related); and I’m certain there will be others I don’t see coming. (That’s life, isn’t it? In all its variety.)

Grit is a noun, and it’s also a verb: especially in the winter, I often have to grit my teeth through the latest train delays or impending snowstorm. But I don’t think grit has to be dreary or dour: as a friend said recently, “It’s certainly not whimsical, but I think there’s a quiet kind of joy in grit.”

When she said that, I thought of Lindsey’s musings on stubborn gladness and sturdy joy: I want more of both, this year. I think grit is as much about leaning into the good stuff, the magic and delight and love, as it is about showing up for the hard things, the loss and boredom and weariness. They are intertwined, in ways I can’t unravel or explain.

Last spring, I found a few lines in The Last Days of Café Leila that have become my mantra.  I’ve written them down more times than I can count, and they still ring in my head almost every day. For Noor, the protagonist, and for me, “the only thing to do is to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything [I’m] capable of giving.”

If that’s not grit, I don’t know what it is.

Do you have a word for this year? Please share, if you’d like.

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rose silver sunrise treetops

Somewhat to my own surprise, I chose magic for my one little word for 2017.

I’ve been choosing one little word each year since 2010, when brave sneaked into my life, took up residence and never left. It is still and always a guiding word for me, but over the years other words have found their place: comfort, shift, attention, light, gentle, gumption.

After all the changes and challenges of 2016, I knew 2017 would need some serious magic. And it’s been quite a journey: both in paying attention to magic where it already exists, and doing my best to make some of my own.

2017 held so much magic of the everyday kind: flowers, sunshine, my daily trips to Darwin’s, yoga classes, long walks, the kindness of friends and acquaintances and strangers. Like light, it often seems to grow stronger when I look for it and celebrate it.

There were some truly extraordinary magic moments this year, too: walking the beaches of PEI’s north shore with my husband. Hiking the misty Maine woods with dear friends. Climbing the tower of St. Mary’s in Oxford, and drinking in the view of the city at my feet. Closer to home, I ran my first 5K (in the snow!), spoke at Morning Prayers, walked miles around Cambridge and NYC soaking in their respective beauty, and interviewed several truly delightful authors for Shelf Awareness.

Magic, as Elise Blaha Cripe and Ali Edwards have noted, is often something you make. But I’ve also read enough stories of fantasy and magical realism to know this: it’s not entirely in our control.

By its very nature, magic is quicksilver, sneaky, surprising. It can show up where you least expect it and enchant or transform an entire day. But it is not a neutral force: it has a dark, slippery side. It is powerful, but – like love or ambition or so many other forces – it can be dangerous. And as every witch or wizard knows, it can be sought or celebrated or coaxed into greater life, but it can never entirely be tamed.

When I interviewed Alice Hoffman about her wonderful book The Rules of Magic, we talked not only about magic, but about courage, and love. Both in the book and in our lives, these three things are deeply intertwined.

“The book is really all about courage,” Hoffman told me. She spoke of “the courage it takes to be different, the courage it takes to be in love, and the courage it takes to be human.” The Owens siblings have certain powers, and they learn skills and spells and alchemy to hone those powers. But their most potent magic is much deeper and hard-won: it comes from choosing courage, choosing love, even when the outcome isn’t what they hoped for.

Many of the books I read this year involved magic: not only The Rules of Magic but The Dark is Rising, The Luster of Lost Things, the latest installments in Rae Carson’s Gold Seeker trilogy and Rachel Caine’s Great Library series. Several others invoked magic by another name: Leigh Bardugo’s take on Wonder Woman, Claudia Gray’s novels about Princess Leia, Jodi Taylor’s riotous time-traveling historians.

In a year that often seemed like the stuff of nightmares, I kept reaching for stories of heroines, hoping (often unconsciously) for someone to swoop in and save us. But in the end, every one of these heroines – Franny Owens, Leah Westfall, Diana Prince, Leia Organa, Madeleine Maxwell – reminded me of what I already knew: the only true magic is the everyday kind.

heart sneakers trail

All the stories I know about magic eventually come to this: the deepest magic, the truest source of hope, is the very human, often humble work of showing up, taking care, doing what needs to be done. Those lines from The Last Days of Café Leila, which I read back in February, have echoed in my head like a spell or a mantra all year: “The only thing to do was to keep moving, to do something, to show courage, to give everything she was capable of giving.”

Tiffany Aching learns this in Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series: the work of a village witch is often scrubbing and soothing and elbow grease, doing her best to watch over the people in her care. Isabelle Owens reminds her great-nieces of this in The Rules of Magic: “We carry these things with us, and we have to fight them. The best way to do this is to be who you are, every part of you.” And Albus Dumbledore insists, to Harry Potter and anyone else who will listen, that the deepest magic – the mightiest word – is love.

Magic still has much to teach me, I think, but its lessons – perhaps fittingly – aren’t easy for me to articulate. It has been a year of myriad questions and very few answers; a year of mystery and struggle and often darkness; a year of trying to keep up and take care, while the forces around me seemed hellbent on yanking my life out of control. But it has also been a year of surprising joy.

As I walk forward into 2018, I am grateful for the presence of magic in my life. I can’t control it and I don’t always understand it. But it is there, and I hope it stays around for a while. I’ll be watching for its glimmers amid the everyday.

Did you follow a word in 2017? What did it teach you?

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