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Posts Tagged ‘womanhood’

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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dog jack book blanket

I’ve had a couple of real duds lately: books I got pretty far into and then decided to jettison. But here’s the good stuff:

A Dog Called Jack, Ivy Pembroke
I love a sweet, witty chick-lit story once in a while – even better if it’s British. I grabbed this one at the library and happily curled up with it on a snowy weekend. It’s the story of Jack, a dog left behind by his previous owners who wins the hearts of a whole street in London. So lovely and fun.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me and You, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
It’s no secret I’m a Lin-Manuel fangirl (I even got to meet him last year). My husband gave me this warm, witty book of his good-morning and good-night tweets, illustrated. I’ve been flipping through it at night and – no surprise – it is so fun and encouraging.

The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander
It took me a while to get into this novel – about two women, one in modern-day California and the other in 1960s Soviet Russia, who are linked by the Blüthner piano they both love. Despite the slow start, it’s a compelling story and the writing is really good. Especially enjoyable if you’re a musician.

The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
Returning to his family’s farm in Ireland, John Connell wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. But helping his father (with whom he often clashes) through a calving and lambing season helped change his perspective. Beautifully written; a bit like a modern-day, more sober-eyed James Herriot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

On Being 40(ish), edited by Lindsey Mead
Lindsey is a lovely Internet-to-real-life friend of mine, and I’m so proud of her work in editing this collection of smart, funny, honest essays. They address the experience of turning 40, navigating the next decade or so, and looking back on the experiences that led to 40. I’m 35, so I’m a little younger than the contributors, but I found much to ponder and relate to here. My favorite essay was Veronica Chambers’ “A Game of Two Halves.”

Correspondents, Tim Murphy
Since high school, Rita Khoury, the daughter of a large Lebanese-Irish Boston family, has longed to be a journalist. In the wake of 9/11, she’s sent to Beirut and then Baghdad to cover the U.S. occupation and its effects on ordinary Iraqis. She becomes close to her interpreter, Nabil, and a handful of other colleagues. Murphy tells their story with warmth and compassion. Vivid, compelling and so deeply human – highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 14).

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

What are you reading?

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Katie polka dots porch selfie

I turned thirty-five this past weekend. And I have to admit: this one freaked me out a little.

I don’t often worry about birthdays: turning another year older beats the alternative, as my mom says. My (fairly healthy) reaction to turning thirty, a few years ago, was to take my first trip to Canada. But this birthday – falling squarely in the middle of ordinary life and a job change – felt big, somehow, in a way I didn’t quite feel able to process.

I’d debated about having a party, but in the end we celebrated with friends, pulling together a brunch in our top-floor apartment: mimosas and fruit, jazz on my old stereo, scrambled eggs and stacks of French toast made by my husband. Sierra walked in and handed me a bouquet of sunflowers; Aaron brought a bread pudding made with honey cake; 14-month-old Colette toddled around in a pink plaid dress with cupcakes on the smocked yoke. Everyone greeted me with bear hugs and best wishes. They pulled open the cabinets for coffee mugs and Fiestaware plates, and made themselves at home on the living room couches and around the kitchen table, talking, laughing, enjoying one another. It was exactly what I wanted.

sunflowers books mimosas birthday

I’m only a few days into thirty-five, of course, but wanted to capture a few snapshots, literal and figurative, of what it looks like so far.

Thirty-five is about a dozen gray hairs (I stopped counting after three). So far I’m happy to let them coexist with the brown and the pink streaks; you can see some of all three above. I am even a little bit proud: I’ve earned every single one.

Thirty-five is adjusting to the rhythms of a new job, in a new neighborhood across the river from my Cambridge home. Thirty-five is struggling with this change, and also trying to turn toward gratitude.

Thirty-five is still learning to own the broken pieces and wonky seams of this life, to step into both strength and vulnerability, to let herself be seen.

Thirty-five is stepping into my identity as a runner, getting out on the river trail several days a week. Thirty-five loves both the measured pace of yoga class and the change-it-up high intensity of a boot camp workout in Erin’s backyard.

Thirty-five is always reading a handful of books at once: something for review, brain-challenging nonfiction, something with heft and depth (fiction or nonfiction), a damn good story, something just for fun. (These categories often overlap.)

Thirty-five repeats a few good phrases to herself over and over again: everyone is learning. You are loved. The only thing to do is to keep moving. Summon all the courage you require

Thirty-five eats a lot of granola and peanut butter crackers, drinks copious amounts of black tea, tries to stay away from sugar and eat more vegetables (she has no trouble eating lots of fruit). Thirty-five tries to stay off the computer in the evenings, and winds down with a book before bed.

Thirty-five tears up often and laughs every single day. Thirty-five wears the same few pieces of jewelry that have become talismans: a necklace stamped with brave, a Wonder Woman bracelet, a matching set of wedding and engagement rings.

Thirty-five thought she’d have more answers to a few big questions by now. Instead, she is facing the reality that we are always becoming. That few things are set in stone. That even the most foundational relationships will change. Thirty-five would refute the sunny-side optimists who insist that change is always good, but is trying to agree with the friend who often says, “Change is how we grow.”

Thirty-five has learned that love and life are bigger and harder and more complicated than she ever thought possible. Thirty-five is in the middle of a messy, rich story. Thirty-five is doing her best to be honest about, and grateful for, the all of it.

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katie memorial church green coat harvard yard
“I sometimes wish I were a morning person,” I confessed recently to a friend. I loved – and embraced – my natural inclination toward being a night owl in college and graduate school, but the truth is that early commutes and nine-to-five day jobs don’t always jibe well with a love of late nights. I like the idea of being a morning person, but I always want to hit the snooze button one more time.

“I sometimes wish I were an extrovert,” he replied.

My response was immediate and knee-jerk: I have never, not once, wished I were an extrovert.

Certainly I have wished I were less shy, more at ease among strangers. Cocktail parties and networking events – really, anything that requires me to walk alone into a roomful of people I don’t know – are among my worst nightmares.

But I’ve always been fundamentally satisfied to live in my quiet, introspective world. I love being a bookish deep thinker, a writer, a ruminator. I love a cozy night in on the couch, with a good book or a favorite TV show and a cup of tea. I have never not wished those traits were a part of who I am.

red journal chai darwins

I have, at times, wished I were taller, thinner, more athletic, more daring. (I do have an adventurous streak – which mostly manifests itself in my love of travel.) And I do wish I could whistle.

But I have never wished I were blonde, male, a party girl, a coffee drinker (I’m a tea addict). I have never not wanted to be a bookworm, or a writer. I’ve always preferred one-on-one nights out (or in) with a friend to loud, large parties. I’ve always been comfortable with a few key parts of my identity.

My friend’s comment got me thinking about the things we cannot change – and the things we sometimes wish we could. Part of me does wish I woke up earlier and more easily. (I’m not exactly cranky in the morning, just a slow starter.) But those other traits – my bookishness, my introversion, my deep love of quiet time alone or with friends – are integral and cherished parts of who I am.

As I settle into my thirties, I find myself growing more and more comfortable in my own skin. (Though I admit I’d like to be more comfortable at networking events.)

What do you wish you could change about yourself? What are the deep fundamental traits you’d never change – even if you could?

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This is thirty-one

katie-sd

I’m thirty-one today. Which means I’m officially settling into my early thirties, trying the phrase on for size.

I have loved being thirty, and I’ve been spending a little time thinking about where I am right now and what I’d like thirty-one to look like. (This post was partly inspired by Lindsey’s gorgeous musings on turning forty.)

Thirty-one is thinking hard, all the time, about the big questions: marriage, money, career, children, where to live, how to live. Thirty-one is realizing that some doors are closed to me, or at least swinging shut – while others are perhaps more open than I think they are.

Thirty-one is buying clothes for the body I have, not the body I used to have, the body I wish I had, or the body that appears in most of today’s fashion catalogs.

Thirty-one is learning to listen to my body and my soul when they cry out (or even whisper) that they need rest.

Thirty-one is learning not to apologize for what I like and the way I am, while remembering to be gracious, polite and adaptable.

Thirty-one is taking a hard look at my budget with my husband, stepping up our student loan payments and our retirement contributions, and also continuing to make travel a priority.

Thirty-one is realizing, in a thousand small ways, that my generation and I are the grown-ups now.

Thirty-one is wearing many different hats: writer, wife, sister, daughter, editor, friend, aunt, resident bookworm. Thirty-one is slowly realizing the impossibility of being all things to all people.

Thirty-one is learning, again and again, to pay attention and soak in the present moment, in all its messy loveliness.

Thirty-one is learning to live with life’s spaciousness and its uncertainty, its jagged edges and its breathtaking beauty.

Thirty-one (as seen in many of the sentences above) is still learning. And loving every minute of it.

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Hello, lovely.

It feels odd to be writing a letter to a part of myself, a part distinct from my soul and yet bound up with it, something I cannot separate myself from.

I am using parts of you to write this letter to you: the pads and sinews and bones in your fingers, the rods and cones in your green eyes, the funky grey matter hidden under the straight brown hair pulled back from your face because it was 88 degrees today and whatever style I achieved with the curling iron had completely disappeared by the time I made it to work.

I’m resting the laptop on the thighs I haven’t always loved, spine pressing into the back of the loveseat, wrists curving over the keyboard the way they used to when I sat on Mrs. Langford’s piano bench every Tuesday afternoon. I am living, breathing, inhabiting you even as I pause to say thank you for all we’ve been through together.

I have often wished you were taller, especially after my little sister shot up past me in height, and started putting her arm around me just so she could rub it in (she likes rubbing it in; all little sisters do). I have sometimes wished you were stronger, especially in gym class during the annual physical fitness tests, when you’d hang from the metal bar and I’d beg you to complete one, just one, pull-up. You never could, though you could do push-ups and sit-ups and sprints and stretches. I was grateful for that.

You played volleyball ably, if not spectacularly, for years, and there was satisfaction in digging deep to return a serve, in setting the ball up high for someone else to spike, in bumping the hard ball so it sailed into the air and your forearms turned red. I never considered you an athlete. But you were more coordinated than I gave you credit for. You still play catch or shoot baskets with my husband when it’s called for, and you aren’t half bad at yoga, though we haven’t done any of that in a while.

You and I have walked through Europe together, hiked hills in Spain and Scotland and strolled down Paris streets, spent countless hours pedaling or walking through the streets of Oxford, where I nourished you with warm scones and tomato soup, with chocolate Digestives and warm cookies from Ben’s, with tikka masala sandwiches from On the Hoof and countless cups of tea. You carried me up the hill into South Parks so I could sit on my favorite bench and watch the sunset, and together, thighs burning from the effort, we pedaled all the way up Headington Hill.

We learned to dance in high school, thanks to the efforts of a boy who took us both in hand, teaching us to step and pivot and twirl, to let go and laugh and have the time of our lives doing it. We’ve spent a lot of time dancing since then, most recently at a wedding in Maine last month. You protested a bit after hours in high heels, but you let me laugh and sweat and spin, let me dance with the groom and the best man and my own husband, and join the conga line and the soul train and the knot of happy couples spinning, because love is holy and good and the coming together of two people, two lives, is worth celebrating.

I look in the mirror at you these days, and sometimes I frown over unplucked eyebrows and breakouts and errant hairs that won’t quite bend to the will of the curling iron, but mostly I like what I see. The big green eyes you inherited from my mother, the freckled nose and cheeks that flush easily, the smile that was straightened by braces and flashes out at the slightest opportunity. You have curves, just a few, and while sometimes you’ve felt short and plain and dumpy next to your tall, blonde, willowy sister, I’ve come to appreciate you, petite and slender and strong.

I am finally learning to dress you in clothes that make you feel beautiful, to stand up straight the way Mom always told me, to revel in this body because it’s the only one I have, the one I’ve been given, the one I will inhabit till the end of my days here on earth, and to take care of you because you are precious, you are holy, you are mine.

Thank you for supporting me through bike rides and volleyball practices and countless hours sweating on the marching band field. Thank you for enduring road trips and jet lag, for giving me a way to savor raspberries and guacamole, steak and strawberries and salsa, fresh bread and hot tea and dark chocolate and all the other foods I love. Thank you for catching my husband’s eye, for holding my nephew on your chest, for walking me through so many cities and around the paths of my daily life and back home every night.

Thank you for holding my history, our history, in your muscles and bones and skin, in your birthmarks and smile lines and scars, in the green eyes that mark me as a Barger woman and the smile that says I’m a Noah. Thank you for joining me on this journey, for letting me do as Madeleine L’Engle says and inhabit every age I’ve ever been. I’ll do my best to hold those ages tenderly, and take care of you for all the years to come.

Love,

Katie

This post is part of the SheLoves synchroblog A Love Letter to My Body. Many thanks to Sarah and her post for pointing me there.

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