February, 2021

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Less than fully charged …

A series of five cartoon outlines of human forms depicting energy levels from low on the left with just a bit of red at the feet to a full charged completely green body on the right.

Reading is the one thing I do with any regularity. Whether it is my measure 25 minutes each morning, incessant listening as I piece together a puzzle, or the occasional all day binge on the weekend, there is a book in my hand at some point every day. Consequently, when I determined to revitalize and re-shape this space, I knew I wanted to create a review feature. Not posting here regularly last year as I read through a mountain of books has one benefit, I always have a pile of material to choose from.

I knew I wanted to write a book review this week. I even knew which book I wanted to review this week, because it remains as vital and useful at this moment as it was when I read it last year. As often happens, however, the universe conspired to bring together disparate elements, putting them in relation until the underlying message and theme becomes undeniable. Now, instead of a fairly straightforward book review, there’s television, and social commentary. The only question remaining is where to start pulling this thread.

A series of five cartoon outlines of human forms depicting energy levels from low on the left with just a bit of red at the feet to a full charged completely green body on the right.

Energy is a great place to start. Last week, for reasons I couldn’t really explain, I ended nearly every day feeling like the figure on the far left. I was exhausted. In fact, on Monday night, I was in bed by 8:30pm and asleep before 9:00pm. The depletion of energy I felt by the end of the day felt inexplicable, because I was generally eating well, sleeping well, and would wake up feeling in the green. If I wasn’t completely charged like the image on the far right, I was pretty close. And, while I had work to do each day, there was nothing overtly stressful happening. I completed my daily task lists, without anything looming incomplete over me. Even the weather cooperated by providing a lovely bit of sun and warm weather to re-charge the world after our grim week of snow and ice. My exhaustion at the end of each day felt bewildering.

My week-night pandemic ritual has become nearly as well defined as my morning contemplations (dinner on the couch with 30 minutes of local news followed by The News Hour). Yet, this week I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take in the news any more. Yet, I didn’t have the energy to do anything but sit in front of the television. Fortunately, Dr. Revolution chimed in at just the right time to convince me to finally start Bridgerton.

Bridgerton title card: landscape painint with a blooming fruit tree with pink flowers at the center, Briderton written in white all caps font across the tree in the exact center of the image.

I’m late enough to this game that I don’t feel like I need to recap the standard fare about this show. If you haven’t heard about the intimacy coordinators required to make this show, or seen RegĂ©-Jean Page on Saturday Night Live, the details are covered incessantly elsewhere. While I will admit the eye candy is lovely and the underlying romance swoon-worthy, this technicolor ode to Austen and Regency scandal sheets makes its way onto the blog for other reasons this week. I will elucidate below. For now, what I will say is that if you need a retreat from the world there are worse places to go than 1813 London.

Bridgerton follows the coming out season for Daphne Bridgerton, the eldest daughter of a Viscount. In this season a pseudonymous author Mrs. Whistledown begins publishing a gossip sheet detailing the events of the season. Daphne’s father has passed away, leaving his eldest son Anthony in charge of the family estate and Daphne’s courtship. As in often the case in such stories, Anthony is chaffing under the strain of his new responsibilities. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers here and I will not begiving you the entire plot run down. You only need the set up to understand that as Anthony attempts to exert his new authority as Viscount by making a match for Daphne he fails to consult her, and routinely dismisses her desires. Daphne often asks him something to the effect of, “Is it because I am a woman that you do not think me capable of knowing my own mind or understanding my own experience?” The question of a woman’s ability to determine her own desires, her own life, and to shape the world around her runs throughout the show underscoring many different plotlines. As does the way the men of the show continually fail to see women as fully developed people, not just as their role in society or function as an accessory to a man’s life.

Perhaps it is because I’d immersed myself in Bridgerton, that I started paying attention to just how many women are still forced to ask the same questions. Let me provide just one category of example, women’s health. Just this week, yet another friend shared with me the story of how complicated her relationship with her body and her health are, because she has consistently had to convince medical doctors to take her concerns seriously, to believe her description of her experiences, to treat her symptoms not her weight. She described how it has taken her so long to feel an ownership over her body and her health, after doctors – instead of treating her – asked her if she was faking her symptoms. I don’t know a woman without a similar story. If it isn’t an overt questioning of symptoms, “Are you faking it?” Ask a woman how many times the intensity of her pain has been questioned? How many times has she been treated like addict for asking for relief from that pain. My point is that women still, in so many ways, have to constantly prove the validity of their own experience.

Book cover for Burnout. The title Burnout written in red across a black background, repeated all down the front of the book.  The top versions vivid, the bottom versions fading.  In between each line, in whit a protion of the subtitle written in white: the secret of unlocking the stress cycle.

The book, books really, I recommend today start from this point and explore the causes and costs of how women must navigate the world. Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle focuses entirely on women by identifying the elements that make life stressful for contemporary women and then providing a way for women to better manage that those stressors. The functional tips the Nagoski’s provide for dealing with stress are useful to everyone. Their discussion of the societal pressures creating stress creates a place where women can see themselves and their experiences taken seriously. The book becomes an expansive breath that reminds us that we are not alone.

book coover for Kate Manne's Down Girl: a muted teal green background with a stick figure made of string holding the head of another string figure down.  The title is in white text about a third of the way down the page.  the subtitle, the logic of misogyny, is is in pink text below the second head of the string figure.

To help frame their discussion of the societal pressures that create different stressors for women, the Nagoski’s rely on Dr. Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny. They identify Dr. Manne’s concept of Human Giver Syndrome as a significant stressor in women’s lives. If I did not overtly recommend Dr. Manne’s book a couple of years ago when I first read it, let me do so now. Dr. Manne is a philospher. Consequently the opening chapter or two of the book, where she situates herself within the philosophical tradition are dense. However, the following chapters where she lays out Human Giver Syndrome and her discussion of misogyny are brilliant.

Within this pandemic, we are all being asked to give more than what we are able to currently receive. And, we are all being asked to do this differently depending on our race, gender, our socioeconomic status, and all the intersections of those elements in our lives. Burnout and Down Girl describe what it means to be a woman in this world. Yes, they were written pre-pandemic, but their lessons are still relevant. Down Girl helps us to name, see, and understand women’s experience in the world. Burnout provides us actionable practices to recuperate from our experiences in the world. Of all the books I read last year and could have chosen to review right now, I chose Burnout, because it is so helpful. If you don’t want to read the whole book, BrenĂ© Brown interviews Emily and Amelia Nagoski in the first season of her Unlocking Us podcast. It is a remarkable conversation that brought me to tears at least twice.

After this week, I understand why my energy is depleted so quickly, and in writing this review, I am reminded that I know what to do to replenish myself.

A series of five cartoon outlines of human forms depicting energy levels from low on the left with just a bit of red at the feet to a full charged completely green body on the right.

Coffee and Contemplation

softly lit kitchen a clear coffee mug, filled with coffee and cream, with "Mornings are for Coffee and Contemplation" printed on the outside of the mug.
softly lit kitchen a clear coffee mug, filled with coffee and cream, with  "Mornings are for Coffee and Contemplation" printed on the outside of the mug.

It’s been a cold and icy weekend here. Fortunately, both days I’ve convinced Moshe to wait until the temperature got above 30 degrees before we went for a walk. I love those mornings, because they are so quiet and allow me indulge in my favorite ritual. Drinking a cup of coffee in bed, in the dark, while I read on my Kindle Paperwhite.

I have no idea what other Kindles are like. For me, the Paperwhite is perfect for reading in the dark.

You’d think that, with all this contemplating, I would have something significant to say. You’d be wrong about that. Fortunately, I had material things to distract me this week! Last week, I finally ordered my last big rug purchase for the house.

Grey, square, pub height kitchen table on top of an oval jute rug

I went into this rug selection thinking that I’d get a repeat of my multi-colored rag rug from my Aberdeen, NC kitchen. Then I started looking and I realized a jute rug would look amazing on top of my hardwood floors. I think it is also a nice accent to the plant corner in the bay window.

Opposite view of kitchen table and rug that shows a bay window filled with plants.

The point here is that for the last year a lot of what I’ve been contemplating is how to make this house a home that reflects who I am now. There are still things I need to do before everything will be the way I envision it, but the biggest elements for the public parts of my home are put together.

Skirting around the edges of all this contemplation is the question of settling in. I am doing my absolute best to believe, and act as if, I have found my home. As if this job, this house, this area represent the place I am going to be for a very long time. It seems so easy for some people to do this. To build gardens, to landscape their yard, paint walls, hang art with the trust that they won’t have to pick up and move in a few months. What I have realized is that none of that is easy for me.

Given how nomadic my life has been since 2015, I guess it makes sense for me to find it difficult to settle in to this place. The morning contemplations are helping, but I don’t have an answer for how to fix it, how to settle in and be in this moment. Yes, I know time is really the only thing that will allow me to settle. I’ll do my best to enjoy my home as time works its magic.

Miscellany

Picture of a Heron standing at the edge of a pond in the evening light. It is reflected perfectly in the still water of the pond.

All week I’ve been keeping my eyes open and listening extra hard, trying to figure out what I would write about. While your skepticism is completely warranted, I wasn’t kidding last week when I said “I intend to be more regular about posts this year.” We’ve certainly all been around this block enough times to know that I am not going to make any promises about what “regular” means, and you probably shouldn’t set up any expectations about it either. Last week’s post had been brewing for a while, as had a series of book reviews that you are likely to see here over the course of the next few months; yet, as I planned to dust off this little corner of my world, I knew I didn’t want this to be all reviews all the time. All of this is a long winded way of asking your patience with a post full of random thoughts struggling to find its purpose.

Picture of a Heron standing at the edge of a pond in the evening light. It is reflected perfectly in the still water of the pond.

Monday started pretty awesomely, when Moshe and I came across this friend during our evening walk. Just the night before, in my journal I’d predicted that this cold snap meant I wouldn’t see any herons for a few more weeks. Although I didn’t write it down, I was a little bummed, because it had been so long since I’d seen them. Finding this guy at our pond the very next day filled me with awe, especially when he stayed still as we walked along the pond in his direction.

I really hope my heron sightings are as common this year as they were last year. Last year, I often saw them flying across my path as I drove into work in the morning, or at home as Moshe and I did our morning walk. This year, working from home, I wonder how often I will get to see them. As the weather gets nicer and I want to get out of the neighborhood more often, I do know where I can go walking to improve my chances of seeing them often. This week, I’ve been reflecting on all the changes from the last year, but I have not been able to coalesce my experiences into anything yet. I’ve been trying to hard to anticipate the consequences and which changes I think will have a lasting effect. I need to sit with things for a while, before I try to name them.

Speaking of naming things, I’ve been thinking about identity again. Thinking about how our activities help define our identities and the labels we feel we can and cannot accept about ourselves. For example, one new identity I need to name and claim for myself this year is “pilgrim.” A good friend said she was going to do the Camino de Santiago this year. Although she longs to do it for real, walking the route from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, this year the Camino is virtual. For $60 you can purchase an app that logs your progress, provide pictures of what you would see on that day’s hike, and if you want can provide you with a community to check-in with on the journey. If enough people want to do it with you, you can even form your own team / community along the way. The proceeds from the app go to support the hostels along the route that have been struggling during Covid.

And, folks, you’ve now reached the limits of what I know I am doing, beyond walking about 480-some miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. My app tells me that while walking Moshe, and convincing myself to do a few extra miles on the treadmill, I’ve made 11% of my journey. I’ve not exactly been reverent about what I am doing, particularly since the friend who started all this nonsense has yet to start her own journey. So, I better take some time to figure out what being a pilgrim means to me before my estimated arrival in July.

My ever present identity crisis as a writer is also at play again this year. Because I don’t have a draft of my personal book yet, or any professional writing at any stage of the process, and I hadn’t written here in so long, I’ve been feeling like I shouldn’t call myself a writer any more. Hence, the intention to post here more regularly. Friday during my lunch break, as I sat catching up on my journaling, I happen to notice how much of this journal, started on 12/31/20, I’d worked through.

A journal standing on end and open about half way.  It is shot from above and you can see how the already written on pages fan out more freely than the remaining blank pages.

As I looked at just how far I’d written into this journal, I realized I was actually not as far as I normally would be. The year, my mood, and the way my morning habits have deteriorated have all meant that I’ve actually been journaling less than normal. I also started to think about my criteria for what counts as “writing.” I’m incredibly frustrated by my lack of progress on my personal book. Some of my struggle comes from the subject matter, and some of it comes from the way I’m trying to mix genre, and none of that is as problematic as my own imposter syndrome constantly telling me that I can’t write a book.

But, here’s the thing:

bookshelf full of journals
Yes, they are in chronological order. Did you really expect any less?

I have a book shelf full that proves otherwise. These are the 17 journals of various size that I’ve filled since January 2016, when I got serious about journaling. They each contain a minimum of 200 pages, many actually have more, and I have filled them all. Sure, the process and needs of writing the book I’m working on are different than those of journaling, but if I can fill these 17 journals, I can absolutely write the 40,000 words I need to create my book.

So, the other thing I did this week was make some changes to the house. I put together the plant stands I bought, so I could move the plant clan off my small desk. Moved my desk up stairs to the office, and created two different “working” spaces for myself. One side of the office is my “work from home” space, and on the other is my “writing” space. Hopefully, I’ve created a space that will allow me to channel the determination of my herons to make progress and finish the first draft of this personal project.

Don’t call it a book club!

Screenshot of a tweet that says "find yourself a friend as fun to talk about books with as BrandyLyn Brown" and shows four book covers: The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, The Witch Elm, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and The Searcher

Last year, for the first time ever, I kept a list of all the books I read. As I made the list I decided ‘read’ included listened to, but I only included new books I listened to, not those I re-listened to as I waited for my Audible credits. The number of “new” books I read and listened too was 62, if I remember correctly. No one needs to know what that number would have been if I counted the re-listens.

Yes, yes, I know there are other options than Audible, and they are likely cheaper. But, listen, Audible is a known quantity for me. I know what day I get my credits. I know which narrators I love, which narrators I can tolerate, and which narrators to avoid. And, they recently started giving members access to a lot of free content each month. Sure, sometimes what I find there is trash, but sometimes it is exactly the trash I need. Am I happy that Amazon bought out Audible a few years ago? No. But, I assuage my guilt about giving Jeff Bezos money in other ways.

In addition to reading A LOT last year — which really didn’t feel like reading that much, last year was the year of crazy birthday presents that did not come on my birthday. Yes, there are multiple stories to tell about this; no, I cannot say when you will get them all. If y’all know anything about this space, it’s that I write about what I want when I feel like it. (Though, I intend to be more regular about posts this year.)

I believe was toward the end of September when my friend, Northwoods Renaissance Woman, sent me a message asking what I would ask, if I could ask Tana French anything. NRW earns her moniker because she takes amazing photographs, has her own radio show, and is in all ways cooler than any of us. For her radio show, she frequently interviews authors with new books coming out, and in the last year has snagged some impressive interviews. Of course, the Tana French interview was the most impressive for me. I gave her my question, and then waited rather impatiently for the interview and French’s new book to come out. Once the interview was complete, NRW sent me a five minute clip of French answering my question! I listened immediately, at work so I couldn’t actually squeal like a teenage girl, but that was exactly my reaction, especially when French answered the question exactly as I would have!

As soon as her new book The Searcher came out, I used the audible credit I’d saved for this moment, and downloaded the book. I binge listened to it over that weekend as I worked on a jigsaw puzzle. NRW had told me she was really interested in hearing what I thought of the book, so when I was done I texted her and we set up a quick video chat to talk about the book.

A few weeks later NRW tweeted about a VE Schwab book I didn’t realized had already come out. I mentioned how excited I was to read it, and NWR told me to let her know when I finished it. Once again, when I’d finished we set up an impromptu video chat to talk about our reactions to the story. We also talked about how much we enjoyed getting together to talk about books we read in common.

Screenshot of a tweet that says "find yourself a friend as fun to talk about books with as BrandyLyn Brown" and shows four book covers: The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, The Witch Elm, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and The Searcher

One of the things we both said we loved about it is that we do not have a book club. There is no deadline, no standard meeting, no agenda for the type of book we are reading, no special questions. We pick a book to read and once we’re both done, set up a chat. It’s been great, and we’ve picked some solid books, as you can see in NRW’s recent tweet, after our discussion of The Lost Book of Adana Moreau.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is an amazing book, particularly the first two-thirds. I was only a 1/4 of the way through when I texted NRW to say that this book made me feel like I was back in grad school. I know, I know that doesn’t always signify a good thing, but in this case it does. The book is such an interesting exploration of our identities and connections to one another. Even when it feels like the author takes a few too many side roads, you can see why the author is doing it. As I read I knew exactly which class and which professor I thought should teach this book. I even thought about emailing him to recommend it.

NRW and I are continuing our ‘not-a-book-club’ read along, and no you can’t join, because there is nothing to join. We are just two women, who get together to talk about books. Periodically, I’ll tell you when we find a gem like The Lost Book of Adana Moreau, or the other one we truly enjoyed The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.