Book suggestion/review, Writing

A New Beginning

After a long hiatus, I returned to my first love – creative writing – last September. This led to the publication of the essay The Life Inside Me in October, and then the essay Invisible in December. During this time, I also managed over 56,000 words of a new novel for #NaNoWriMo2016 in November (my first win). Then, as commonly occurs when you return to that thing that calls to your soul, all hell broke loose, and my life as I knew it imploded. Since then, I have slowly, painstakingly clawed my way back to a regular writing practice and just today started rewriting the #NaNoWriMo novel tentatively titled The Waiting Place.

Along the way, I came across a podcast that gave me the extra fuel I needed to complete the journey back to writing – Yoga Church. One particular episode really spoke to me and lit me up: Episode 36: Honoring Voice where Meadow DeVor and Pixie Lighthorse discuss reconnecting and honoring your inner voice. I have had an incredibly difficult time hearing my inner voice, and even when I did, I have had an even harder time trusting what I heard and folhonoring-voicelowing through with its guidance. Enter Pixie Lighthorse’s newest book: Prayers of Honoring Voice. This book contains prayers that assist the reader in asking for divine help with honoring that inner voice in all that he or she does. I am not a person who believes that there is an old man somewhere up in the sky that selectively hands out blessings or punishments. In fact, I completely reject the idea that such a deity exists, so I’m often hesitant to turn to anything that has the word “prayer” in the title (or “church” for that matter). I believe in a protective, loving, forgiving, encouraging, and compassionate energy that flows through everything that we do should we choose to invite it to do so. That is exactly what Pixie Lighthorse’s prayers do (as does the Yoga Church podcast). They’ve hit on every aspect of insecurity and fear that I have about putting words on the page and sharing them with others – especially the hardest part for me: getting started. A particular favorite prayer of mine is “Honoring Creation” which is located in the South section of the book. As she mentions in the “How to Use this Book” section, “Each section of prayers is aligned with the teachings of the Four Directions” which are aligned with the four seasons and four elements – for example, the first section is: “East, Season: Spring, Element: Air”. If you would like a more in-depth description of Prayers of Honoring Voice, you can read Lighthorse’s excellent description here.  The really great news is that the book is available under Kindle Unlimited, so if you are a subscriber, you can read it for free. However, this is one book that I want in hard copy to have right next to me while I write. I want to be able to flip through its pages whenever I need to. It is a book I know I can turn to when the fear of what I have to say, of what I need to say, takes over, and I start to shut down. I hope that it will do the same for you. These prayers are now a part of my daily writing routine, and I use them as a starting off point, as an invocation and invitation to the muse and as a reminder that I don’t have to go on this writing journey all alone.

Book suggestion/review

What If?: A Book Review

When I first started reading What If?, I got quite irritated (as the author warns that you will). I sat it down for a while and then came back to it. I’m glad I did. Eldon Taylor argues for and against some of our most ingrained personal beliefs – such as capital punishment, abortion, and taxes. He takes us through “thought experiments” – some real and some imagined – to bring us to question what we think to be true. Then he follows each thought experiment with tough, thought-provoking questions.

One of the most thought-provoking questions for me was, “If this were true, would you behave any differently?” To put it into perspective, one example where this question was asked was in the discussion of the existence of an afterlife. Taylor gives several different sides of the afterlife debate, and at the end of each he asks if you would behave any differently if that particular belief was true.

What Taylor does so well is to show that there really is no certainty in the beliefs that we hold. A belief we may cling to for years can one day be completely obliterated in favor of a new belief based on knowledge we have gained. Taylor goes through much of why we believe what we believe and the manipulation that takes place in order to get us to believe one way or another. He suggests that, rather than ever taking someone’s word for something, we investigate it ourselves and come to our own conclusion based on the facts, not propaganda. I have seen this in my own life. Just in the last seven years my life has changed dramatically – mostly from personal experience and exposure to things I thought I understood but did not. My beliefs are unrecognizable in comparison to the beliefs I held seven years ago.

What If? is a challenging book, and one that will leave many of us feeling unsettled – in a good way. Through the emotions that Taylor’s questioning evokes, we learn where we hold rigid beliefs and in turn where to begin to open our mind to other possibilities. Taylor doesn’t give answers to the questions he posits, though he does offer some personal opinions in some of the scenarios. His purpose for writing What If? is to get us to answer the questions for ourselves so we can better understand who we are and why. Many of us are mindlessly walking through life as followers and never quite understand the underlying reasons why we believe what we do. If we were challenged on our beliefs, many of us would be hard-pressed to come up with a fact-based, non-emotional response to our challenger. What If? is a great way to start on the journey towards self-awareness so that we can better understand ourselves, speak confidently about what we believe and why we believe it, and take action based on those beliefs rather than standing on the sidelines waiting for someone else to do it.

One last question from Taylor to leave you with: “What was your last truly original thought?”

Book suggestion/review

Jackie After O: A Book Review

Every once in a while I come across a book that grabs my attention and doesn’t let go. Jackie After O is one of those books. Tina Cassidy does a fantastic job of presenting the facts about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ life in 1975 in an engaging way. She provides us with important background information that helps us better understand the scope of what Jackie endured and what she ultimately accomplished. Cassidy captures the era in which Jackie lived and the expectations of women at that time through Jackie’s experiences. Though Jackie was extremely intelligent, she hid that intelligence and instead portrayed the expectations set upon her by others – the quiet, demure, supportive wife who was only interested in homemaking and her husband. We learn about the true Jackie who was a great journalist, editor, and preservationist; a voracious reader of the classics; and a woman with a level of tenacity rarely seen. Jackie did the majority of her important work behind the scenes and always credited others for her accomplishments. Cassidy provides amazing contrast between the true Jackie and the superficial Jackie everyone believed her to be. She provides examples of the outside perceptions of Jackie through headlines and personal comments of others and then provides examples of what was actually going on in Jackie’s life at those moments. There are many examples of personal commentary by those who met Jackie that exemplify the stark contrast between how Jackie was perceived by outsiders and the media and the person she truly was behind the façade imposed upon her.

Jackie After O is so important in helping us understand that what we see in the headlines and how we perceive others to be is not always true. Those thrust into the spotlight often take on a public persona that shields their own vulnerabilities and perceived flaws. The most haunting example of this is the photos Cassidy provides us. In nearly every photo, Jackie has on her picture-perfect-plastic smile for the cameras even though many of them were taken when she was experiencing unimaginable devastation in her life. What Cassidy captures so well is the humanness behind the iconic figure that Jackie was. Jackie made mistakes, as well all do, but her mistakes were paraded in front of her and in front of the entire world. And yet, she continued to improve herself despite the ridicule she faced; she continued to evolve as a woman in an era when women were not supposed to aspire to anything beyond being good wives and mothers; and she continued to make the best of every situation in which she found herself. Jackie was a woman of action and we can all learn from her bravery and courage in the face of life experiences many of us will never endure.

Book suggestion/review

Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected – A Book Review

Bloom emerged from a blog author Kelle Hampton began shortly after her first daughter, Lainey’s, birth. Through her blog, Enjoying the Small Things, Hampton wanted to share with others the simple joys of motherhood she was experiencing.  She could not have foreseen how the birth of her second daughter, Nella, would challenge her so vigorously to continue to find a way to enjoy the small things. Bloom chronicles Hampton’s coming to terms with having a child with Down syndrome, her grieving process over her expectations of what could have been, and her resolve to take the situation that was handed to her and make the best of it. Bloom is by far the most visually beautiful memoir I have seen. The photographs included are stunning and bring Hampton’s experiences to life for the reader. One of the most wrenching photos is on page 7. Family and friends are toasting Nella’s birth and in the background, behind the half-full glasses of champagne, you can see Hampton’s face and it is clear from her expression that she already knows something is not right with her daughter.

Bloom is so much more than just Hampton’s experience learning that her daughter has Down syndrome. It is a testament to the miraculous healing power of family, friendships, women, and forgiveness – not just forgiving others, but forgiving ourselves as well. When I started reading, I thought this was another memoir that sugar-coated the process that a mother goes through when they find out their child has a special need. Being a mother with a child on the autism spectrum, I needed to see how someone else handled learning their child has special needs and how they came to terms with it. I needed the good, but I also needed the downright ugly. It was so refreshing to see that in Bloom. Oftentimes, when I read a memoir that only highlights the rainbows and butterflies and skips over the tornadoes and hurricanes, I feel like a horrible person, like somehow I should be able to make every day full of rainbows and butterflies. I needed to read something I could relate to, something that showed what it’s really like to find out your child is different from what you had expected and Bloom filled that need. I love the authenticity Kelle Hampton exemplifies; the courage she shows through her willingness to bring us fully into the ugly. It is ugly, this awakening. It is an awakening to our own selfishness in our expectations for others and our prejudices towards those we don’t perceive as perfect. It is an awakening to just how much we define ourselves by what other’s think of us and it brings us to a place where we question our beliefs about ourselves, our world, and God. As we see in Bloom, though, the beauty far outweighs the ugliness, and if we choose to let it, that beauty can transform the ugly from a raging wildfire into a tiny flicker.

Bloom spans the first year of Nella’s life and I love how Hampton shows that the fears, the questions, and the journey itself, does not stop just because we’ve learned to accept what we have been given. It continues and the ugliness can creep back in if we do not make a conscious choice each day to keep it at bay by focusing on the good that surrounds us no matter how small. Hampton’s journey to find the beauty in the unexpected and her truth on how she got to that point will help so many others start searching for and find the beauty hidden in the ugliness of their situations too.

Hampton addresses in Bloom how her positive outlook about Nella’s diagnosis caused uproar with some of her blog readers. She was told that she was in denial and to wait until Nella got older and her services ran out and she’d have to fight to get the care her daughter needs. Then she would fully understand the awfulness of her situation. I am there now, and yes, it is hell, but I don’t believe keeping a positive attitude about your situation is ever a bad thing. It is beneficial to warn others what might be up ahead, but not beneficial to scold them for enjoying the time they have right now. I think it is wonderful that Hampton has the blessed opportunity to enjoy her daughter at a time when every need she has is being met and that she has the mindset to enjoy it instead of focusing on what might happen years from now. It is one thing to be prepared for what might happen and quite another to be so worried about it that you don’t enjoy what is happening right now.

This is a wonderful book for anyone who is facing a crisis that has led them to question everything they thought they knew about themselves and about life. It is an uplifting, transformative memoir. We are witnesses to the shattering of Hampton’s tough outer shell in the midst of tremendous heartbreak and the emergence of her true, authentic, beautiful self that had been patiently waiting for the right moment to be revealed.

Book suggestion/review

The Moment: A Review

The Moment is a collection of short essays from 125 writers and artists that focuses on a particular moment in time that significantly changed each author’s life. The collection comes to us from the creators of the Six-Word Memoir series and Not Quite What I Was PlanningSmith Magazine. There is such a wide variety of essays in this collection that it will appeal to almost everyone. I actually brought the book to my writing residency and shared several of the essays I thought were relevant to some of my peers and their struggles with writing and life. It includes essays from Dave Eggers, Diane Ackerman, Elizabeth Gilbert, Bill Ayers, Jennifer Egan, A. J. Jacobs, Judy Collins and many more. This is a book you will want to come back to again and again especially when you need inspiration on those days when you believe everything is going wrong in your life. Below is a brief description of just a few of my favorites.

John B. Carnett, in his brief essay “Birth,” discusses the moment he realized he was using his camera as a buffer between himself and the life unfolding in front of him. It brings forth the question: What do we use as a buffer to distance ourselves from what is happening around us? This might seem odd, but sometimes I feel like my glasses provide a buffer between me and others.

Diane Ackerman has a beautiful essay entitled “Love in a Time of Illness” about her husband’s stroke and his slow recovery and the skills he developed to compensate for what he’d lost. It is heartbreaking and at the same time so hopeful and inspiring.

In “Momento Mori,” Adam Theron-Lee Rensch takes us on a haunting journey into how he believes he accidentally killed his father by rearranging the furniture in his father’s apartment in an attempt to keep his father from getting hurt should he wake up drunk and fall.

Another haunting essay is “Forgiven” by Jennifer Thompson. In the essay, Thompson takes us through her experience watching a man be convicted of her rape, finding out eleven years later that he is innocent, and the beautiful aftermath of what should have been an unthinkably horrific experience.

These are only a few brief descriptions of what you will encounter in The Moment. It is a book that will have you reflecting on your own life and the moments you’ve experienced that changed everything and will serve as a reminder that even the worst of experiences can turn out better than you ever expected.

Book suggestion/review

The Reconstructionist: A Review

The ReconstructionistThe Reconstructionist follows the main character, Ellis, who is a bit lost after graduating college as an engineer. His half-brother died when he was younger in a car accident close to their home and Ellis heard the accident. Hearing accidents was commonplace where they lived; however, when Ellis went to the accident scene, as he often did after hearing one, he realized it involved his brother and his brother’s girlfriend who he had a secret crush on. Many years later, Ellis runs into his brother’s girlfriend, Heather, and she gets him a job as an accident reconstructionist with her husband, Boggs. Boggs and Heather have a troubled relationship and Ellis and Heather, shortly after meeting, begin an affair. When Boggs learns of the affair, he disappears and, in response, Ellis begins a journey to find him leaving his job and Heather behind.

I like how Nick Arvin uses dialogue as a teaching tool for the reader on the difficult subject of accident reconstruction. Arvin is able to help the reader understand the intricacies that go along with trying to find out exactly what happened in an accident. For example, Ellis explains the process of crush energy to a lawyer he is working for on a particular accident. Through explaining to another character how the different processes work, the reader is better able to understand as well.

I also like how the character, Ellis, notices minute details everywhere he goes such as skid marks on the road even when it doesn’t pertain to his work. His work has become a part of him even in his off time. However, the novel overall has too many details. They are often list like, unnecessary to the story, and become a major distraction. The use of so much detail also slows the pace of the novel and takes away from the impact it could have on the reader. I found myself skipping over paragraphs that were laden with unnecessary details.

Something else that was problematic for me with the novel was the character development. None of the characters felt real to me. The dialogue seemed forced and unrealistic. The emotions seemed muted in places where emotions should be running high and running high in situations that would not call for an emotional response. Instead of feeling like I was part of the story as it unfolded, I felt like I was being told the story. I did not feel empathetic towards the characters and was not invested enough in them. I believe the overabundance of details contributed to this. Instead of getting pertinent details on the characters interiority, the reader is given details on what a town looks like, what stores are in the town, what a character bought at a store. For example, on page 187, Ellis walks into a hotel room and we get this description:

He stepped into the room and frigid air gripped him; mounted into the opposite wall was a roaring air-conditioner unit. Next to it stood a sliding glass door onto the balcony. A watery green-and-blue wallpaper flowed from the ceiling to a plum-colored carpet bearing a history of spills and heels. A bed covered by a polyester blanket, two wooden side tables, a dresser, a desk, and two hardback desk chairs crowded against one another. On the dresser stood a TV, and over the bed hung a little framed picture of a jumping swordfish – it looked as if it had been cut from a magazine.

This would be fine if it happened intermittently throughout the novel, but this kind of detail occurs again and again. It would be better if the details were given through some sort of character action rather than given in list-like fashion as above.

Another issue that contributed to the lack of connection with the characters was the behaviors of the characters that were not consistent with what we knew of them. For example, Ellis is involved in an accident that severely disables him emotionally and psychologically. He replays this accident when he drives and it causes a lot of anxiety for him. However, right after he starts driving again, he goes to a bar, drinks, even mentions the effect of the alcohol because he hasn’t eaten all day, and then proceeds to get into his van and drive! It seems unbelievable to me that someone as anxiety-ridden about accidents (including the one he was just in) as Ellis, who also works as an accident reconstructionist, would get drunk and drive. There are other inconsistencies with the characters that I don’t want to mention so I don’t give too much information about the content of the novel to those who have not read it yet, but they are problematic to the suspension of disbelief necessary in a novel.

I liked the subject matter of the novel. Accident reconstruction is a topic that is fascinating, but that little of us know about. There were great details given at different accident scenes and I would have liked to see more of those details included. I liked how the search for Boggs included Ellis revisiting different accidents scenes they had worked on together and how they tried to make logical sense out of something that seems so random. I think these scenes could have been developed even further and, as such, they would have had a bigger impact on the reader and brought forth the larger question of what accidents mean to us. Why do they occur? Are they just random occurrences or is someone always at fault? Are we truly just at the wrong place at the wrong time or is there a larger force at play in our lives? These are the questions that many of us struggle with, especially those of us who have had our lives completely transformed in an instant by an accident whether for the better or for the worse.

Book suggestion/review

A Review of The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1

Lately, I am gravitating towards brevity in my writing and in what I read. I heard about The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 compiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (RegularJOE) through HitRECord and thought it sounded perfect. It is! I loved the tiny stories, and they are tiny. Each story (sometimes only a few lines long) is accompanied by artwork that adds a special element to it. I am often amazed at how only a few words can say so much and have such a powerful impact to the reader. This is a collection of brilliant stories – some humorous and some heartbreaking. I have so many favorites that I keep going back to. As the book says: “The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of (tiny) stories,” – Muriel Rukeyser & Wirrow. I look forward to reading the next two volumes and am keeping this one close by as a reminder that something impactful can be written with just a few words and written well!