Listening to the World

Podcasts. They keep me thinking and engaged on my hour-long train ride to and from work. They distract me from fatigue on my morning runs. I can listen and learn while my eyes dance over my surroundings rather than stare blankly at a flashing screen. I dare say that podcasts are enriching my life.

This morning, I discovered On Being with Krista Tippet.

I listened to her interview with the poet Mary Oliver. It’s called “Listening to the World,” and that’s exactly what it made me want to do. I posted recently about being a writer and what that means. Oliver reminded me that in order to write we have to watch and observe, yes, but we also have to listen. We have to actually pay attention to the world. This seems harder to do these days as technology and information and interconnectedness whirl constantly around us. Sometimes I feel like it will all swallow me whole.

I’ve always loved this line from Oliver’s most famous poem, The Summer Day:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your wild and precious life?

In my twenties, I thought this line was about ambition. Don’t waste your time — go and do something. But after listening to this interview with Oliver and rereading the entire poem, I don’t interpret it that way anymore. The line is simply telling us to live — to be here, in the world, while we have the chance.

Mary Oliver — Listening to the World

Lots of Candles

I’ve been meaning to post about this book since our Nicaragua trip in April. Time has gone so fast since then — it was spring break and now here we are officially in summer. The days have become deliciously long, but June weather in SF is the pits. Cold wind, gray skies. The wind is relentless, which makes all the things I love doing in this city — running, walking on the beach, picnics in the park, lazy days on a sailboat in the bay — pretty miserable. So I find myself daydreaming about my reading perch in Miramar. I would sit here for hours. The ocean breeze was strong enough to sway the hammock just the right amount. And when I lifted by head from my book, I could squint into the sun and see B surfing just below – a small speck in the line up.

Miramar

See the little specks out past the break?

 

Anyway, I made it through four books down there. The stand out of the trip was Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. 

Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake

Pretty cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I liked this book because it gave me a long view on life. Quindlen is in her 60s and writes a lot about decades I haven’t experienced yet. Sometimes I feel so wrapped up in my current stage of life. Reading her story I realized how far there is to go (if I’m lucky). In some ways, I’m still at the beginning. There’s no need to figure it all out right now. My friends and I talk about marriage and having kids and our careers. We’re all at slightly different stages with all of those things and it can be tricky to figure out how to make the best personal choices. We obsess over these topics and while of course they are hugely important, they aren’t the end all be all. Really. How often do we stop to think about what’s next? Babies will grow up. We will be in our 40s. And then our 50s. And 60s. And 70s! We will make more money and lose money. We will change jobs and maybe careers. Some of us will divorce and find ourselves single again even though we thought we had it all figured out in our 30s. We will have adult children (!). We will continue to make new friends all through our life. Who will those people be? What about the places we’ll live? There will always time to try something new, see something new, become someone new.

Quindlen makes this point succinctly with an anecdote about learning to do a headstand at age 50-plus. At first she insists that she is too old to learn a new trick. She’s afraid of headstands.  Then someone tells her a story about a fifty-year-old woman who says she can’t get a college degree at her age. “By the time I’m done I’ll be fifty-four” she tells a friend, and her friend replies, “In four years you’ll be fifty-four anyway.” I love that! How many times have I heard my friends say it’s too late to go back to school, start a new career, leave a dysfunctional relationship. And we’re under 35! I mean come on.

Eventually, Quindlen succeeds at the headstand:

I’m not flexible, physically or spiritually, and it was when I decided to use my strength and determination instead that I got where I wanted to go. Tripod, leg raise, pelvic tilt. And one day I was up, and then upside down. The world didn’t look much different except that it turned out there was a lot of spare change and a couple of stray earrings under my bureau. But it felt different. I can do something today that I couldn’t do half a century ago. And if I can do one thing like that, perhaps there are others. The learning curve continues, which is just another way of saying you’re alive.

It’s so true. Thank you, Anna Quindlen, for giving me some much-needed perspective. Life will work out and it will also surprise us. There’s no way to know how it will look or what will happen. The best thing we can do is continue to participate.

There are dozens of nuggets like this, written in her frank and wry manner. I appreciate the humor she brings to major topics. However, my only complaint is she comes off a little too perfect. Where are her flaws? That raw honesty  I admire so much in writers like Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Liz Gilbert, and Mary Karr was missing. She writes about the challenges of marriage but not really about her own marriage. She mentions quitting drinking in her early 30s almost as a passing comment. But that’s no small thing. What happened to make her want to stop drinking completely? There must be more to the story. I was left wondering about the personal struggles and failures that helped her become the person she is. I still thoroughly enjoyed the book, I just wished she had exposed a bit more of herself. Instead, she keeps us at a comfortable distance.

A few more gems:

On marriage:

“I was never one of those people who tell you that their spouse is their best friend, that they’re always on the same page. I feel like you’re ahead of the game if you’re even in the same book.”

On girlfriends (this was one of my favorite chapters):

“The older we get, the more we understand that the women who know and love us–and love us despite what they know about us — are the joists that hold up the house of our existence. Everything depends on them.”

About her mother:

“Where she was always felt like a safe place.” How perfectly simple is that?

I’ll leave you with a couple more photos from the trip.

Breakfast in Nicaragua

The perfect breakfast nook.

B at sunset

There’s not much in my life that beats sharing a sunset with B.

Are You a Writer?

I never call myself a writer. I identify as an editor without even thinking about it because that’s the work I do every day and also the work I’m paid for. But the truth is, I was a writer long before I was an editor. It was what I always wanted to be. B (who is a sixth grade English teacher) had a good laugh when we recently unearthed my end-of-the-year sixth grade writing assignment. It’s a handmade book bound with loops of pink satin ribbon. Inside are a bunch of short stories and vignettes I typed on my mom’s word processor. At the time, it was the most professional thing I had ever created.  Come to think of it, it was actually my first exercise in publishing — I wrote, edited, printed, and bound this book. The fact of it is pretty neat. But what B found hilarious was the title:

Collective Works book

This was a phase where I hated having a double name and insisted on being called “Laura.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“How can you have collective works when you’re only 11?!” He said. It’s a fair point, and pretty funny. But seeing the title secretly made me happy. I had no memory of it, but wasn’t surprised. I had a lot of confidence and moxie when I was a kid. And I took myself verrrry seriously as a writer.

We'll save the "About the Author" for another time . . .

We’ll save the “About the Author” for another time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I lost that somewhere along the way. Was it in college when I got knocked around in a few fiction workshops? Was it when I started working and just didn’t have much time for it anymore? Was it when I became an editor and discovered that publishing a book does not necessarily bring success and happiness? Was it years of editing that led me to feel more confident in shaping other people’s work than creating my own? I’m not sure.

But I’m slowly gaining it back. I want to call myself a writer again. But when, exactly, is it OK to do this? After you get something published? I had a few things published in my twenties, but that doesn’t convince me I’m “official.” Is it after you get paid to write? I think maybe only other writers (or wannabe writers, or writers who think they are just wannabe writers) understand this dilemma.

Here’s where I’ve landed. It’s the simple answer: You are a writer if you write. Or, to borrow from Cheryl Strayed, you are a writer if you write like a motherfucker. So this is what I will try to do.

I picked up Bird by Bird again. As always, Anne Lamott has my back.

First:

I believed before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.

 

This did not happen for me.

And then:

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part.

But writing is.

So, that’s the plan. My goal isn’t to be published, or suddenly have thousands of readers of this blog (to my four readers out there, I thank you), or to write a book (I mean, I can only go downhill after The Collective Works ). My goal is to find the truth and write it down. To write.

Has anyone else struggled with this? What do you think?

 

Spring Break Reading

One week from now I’ll be back in Nicaragua, hopefully ocean-side, in a hammock, deep in a book.

Beach with palm trees, Popoyo, Nicaragua

From 2014 trip to Popoyo, Nicaragua

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This time we’ll be near Leon, staying at a surf camp in Playa Miramar.

Here are the books I’m packing:

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life by Anna Quindlen (I read about this one on A Cup of Jo — thanks, Caroline.)

The Girl on the Train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Everyone’s saying it’s the next Gone Girl. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but still need to know what all the fuss is about.

And this book, which my company is publishing and which I just started. I’m already hooked and will probably finish it on the plane on the way there.

Hope and Other Luxuries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother’s Life with a Daughter’s Anorexia by Clare B. Dunkel

Two memoirs, two novels. Three female writers, one male. Sounds about right. Think I’ll make it through all four? I guess it depends on how good the waves are – meaning, how many hours a day B spends in the water while I sit in that hammock . . .

See ya on the flipside!

 

100 Best in Memoir/Biography

The editors at Amazon just released this list of 100 memoirs and biographies to read in a lifetime.

I love this genre, so I was surprised that I’ve only read 29 out of 100. I guess a little over a quarter of the list isn’t TOO bad? Stand outs for me include Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, Bossypants by Tina Fey, Just Kids by Patti Smith, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. (And of course Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which goes without saying.)

This one has been on my list for a while. Making it a priority this year.

Book cover of My Life in France by Julia Child

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How many of these books have you read? Any favorites? Anything you would add to the list?

This entry was posted in Memoir.

Lucky Us

This is the first Amy Bloom book I’ve read, despite hearing about her for years. I’m not sure why I waited so long.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

It starts with one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a while —

My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.

And so we’re instantly drawn into the world of young Eva, a practical worrier swept up in the wake of her more beautiful, glamorous, and bohemian older sister Iris.

We follow the girls through 1940s America as they run away from Ohio to Hollywood, where Iris becomes a bona fide starlet a la Esther Williams or Rita Hayworth, to New York.

The writing is clean and frank. Eva as the observer manages to be funny even through tragic loss and heartbreak.

Iris was just being Iris. I don’t think she was more observant or more intuitive than I was. I saw plenty, but I never knew what to make of it. Iris saw only what mattered to Iris, but she really paid attention, like a pilot watching for the flashing lights of the landing strip below. . . Iris said I was more like someone with a crazy radio inside of me, and half the time the radio said things worth knowing and half the time it said things like, “Crops fail in Mississippi.”

Isn’t that perfect? “Iris saw only what mattered to Iris” — one simple detail told in six words that pretty much sums up her entire personality. And the “crazy radio” . . . I don’t know, it made me laugh and totally fall for Eva.

It’s an adventure tale full of rich characters. The girls are down on their luck for most of the book but by the end, as the title suggests, we understand that luck isn’t about shine and sparkle. It’s about the bonds we forge along the ride, the family we choose, and love that lasts.

Have you read Amy Bloom? I want to read another one – let me know if you have suggestions.

Screen Overload

I am writing this on a screen (by necessity) to tell you that I was so maxed out on screens by the end of this holiday weekend.

At one point, I was sitting in my dad’s living room on my laptop doing some online shopping while everyone else was watching football on the T.V. Not that unusual, right? Bored of the shopping, I picked up my phone to check Instagram. And there I was – in a triple screen moment. Phone, laptop, T.V., all at once. I looked around. Everyone in the room was either on a phone or laptop while watching the game, too. Conversations were stilted because people were distracted.

multi device image

image (c) kicker studio

Sick of football, I went to a movie. Oh the luxury of just one screen, everything else quiet for two whole hours. A forced break from my little blipping phone.

It wasn’t like I was on the couch all weekend. I was out and about, walking, running, doing errands. But almost all my down moments involved a screen.

After dinner last night, B and I put the new Broad City. It was hilarious. When it was over, I picked up my phone to scroll through Instagram and Facebook and check my email. And I suddenly just felt gross. Like one does after any overindulgence. Ick. Enough. I deleted Facebook from my phone. Maybe this will prevent the mindless scrolling that really does nothing for my mental state except occasionally make me feel bad about myself because I don’t have a baby or make me judgy of people I barely know. Point. Less.

I crawled into bed even though it was only 8. I couldn’t look at a screen for another minute. I didn’t have the energy to start a new book. I just wanted to lie in the quiet dark and watch the streetlight out the window. B wanted to watch part of a documentary on his laptop in bed before falling asleep. And that’s when I realized how impossible it is to really escape screens. I wasn’t going to stop him; I understood. Plus, it’s his bed, too. So, I turned off my phone, shoved my earplugs in, and squeezed my eyes shut. I paid attention to my breathing and let my mind dance wherever it wanted until I fell asleep.

Now I’m up, blogging before I go to work to sit in front of a screen all day! I mean, I know this isn’t breaking news to anyone. But the screen stuff – it’s gotten really bad. I spent two days with my family this weekend and for most of that time at least one person had their face in a screen – or two. I woke up depressed. I worry my eyes will stop being able to see far distances. Ha. But seriously. What is this doing to us?

I need to cut back. Once something starts making you unhappy, you have to make a change, quick. Work is necessary. Reading blogs and online news and writing is necessary (for me). Totally unnecessary:

  • Commute. On groggy days, I can pass my 40 minute commute scrolling through social media and silly articles. On my good days, I read a book or listen to a podcast instead. That’s 40 minutes each way – plenty of time to actually learn something valuable or make a dent in a book. New rule: no screens on commute.
  • Apps. Having Facebook on my phone means I pick it up and check it to kill time. I’m never really interested in it. It’s just there. Taking it off my phone will take away the stupid temptation. I’m leaving Instagram on for now. But will limit myself to checking three times a day – morning, lunch, and evening. No need to check it every 30 minutes!
  • TV. With Hulu and Netflix, it’s so easy to get sucked into a show and watch a bunch in a row. When you’re hooked, of course you want more – and all you have to do is sit there and the next one will play. As a kid, we had to wait a whole week for the next episode of Party of Five or Dawson’s Creek. I’ll watch three episodes of The Good Wife before even realizing what happened. Must make an effort to limit binge watching. It’s become such a normal way to consume television.

I’ll start there. The funny thing is, I’m really not that sedentary (as this post may imply). I do a lot with my days. I just think this level of screen consumption is kind of the norm, at least in San Francisco. What do you think? Do you ever feel totally maxed on screens? What are some ways you try to keep it in check? I could use some more ideas. . .

This entry was posted in LIfe.

Dear Sugar is Baaaccck

You guys, Cheryl Strayed’s amazing Dear Sugar column is back. As a podcast!

(c) wbur

(c) wbur

I’ve missed Sugar and often turn back to Tiny Beautiful Things or the Rumpus column archive to get my fix. The first episode is up and streaming here.

I was worried about the podcast format. The experience of listening to her (and the original Dear Sugar, Steve Almond) respond to reader’s letters didn’t strike me as deeply as reading the written words. However, hearing their voices made me feel closer to the conversation – like we were friends sitting around for a good long chat. (And I’ve been dreaming of being friends with Cheryl Strayed for years.)

In this episode, Cheryl and Steve introduce the series and answer three listener letters. The format is looser, but I still managed to pull out a couple Sugar gems:

“One of the beautiful things about life is loving the things you’ve had to let go.”

Wow.

“The best advice I have to give anyone in all situations is: you do have to trust your gut. You have to listen to your truth. The body knows. . . Step into the truth, and then come what may.”

Step into your truth!

Thank you, Sugar.

P.S. With the popularity of Serial, people are saying this is a new dawn for radio. I know I’m interested in the medium of podcasts – it requires more imagination and attention than a screen and feels more intimate. What do you think?

2015

Happy New Year, pals!

Do you make resolutions? A lot of my friends say they don’t believe in resolutions. But I love the symbolism of a new year, a fresh start, a turning of a page. I enjoy reflecting on the past year, noting the good and the bad, the changes and the constants, and setting personal goals for the next.

sailing into new year

This year on New Year’s Eve I took a sunset boat ride with friends. It was the perfect way to close out a year — zipping through the water, watching the coastline recede behind us, sailing toward something fresh and new as the sun dipped down in a final curtain call on 2014.

Lighthouse

I’ve summed up my resolution as “radical self care.” I heard this term somewhere – maybe Brene Brown or Annie Lamott said it – and it stuck with me. For me, it means doing little things for myself, like flossing regularly and washing my face at night (seriously) to bigger stuff, like taking the supplements my doctor recommends and saying “no” to things I don’t want to be doing (harder than it sounds).

What are your resolutions, goals, or reflections for 2015?

sailing

We goofed off for most of the boat ride . . . (notice the free wine -bonus!)

The Search for Meaning

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I’m in the middle of a big career/life change (more on that later), so this is the perfect time to read Man’s Search for Meaning. A psychiatrist by trade, Frankl’s memoir is about his time spent in Nazi death camps and what he discovered about the inner secrets of human survival in the absolute worst of situations. His story casts a harsh glare on our modern existence of relative comfort and excess, and dares readers to examine what is actually at the core of a life well spent, regardless of circumstance.

mans-search-for-meaning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning