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Reclaiming My Body Pt.2

On a sunny day, two young girls sit on a sloped retaining wall. One has her knees pulled up and is smiling and talking. The other is turned, her full body to the camera, leaning on her right hip, her left leg outstretched, face turned to her companion. She is holding a small 35mm camera in her hand.

Rowing my millionth meter might not seem like such a milestone to some people. The meter count is a ‘lifetime,’ or however long you’ve been using your Hydrow, total. I’ve never actually rowed on the water or with other people. I’ve never competed. So, I wanted to try to explain how significant this mile stone is for me. As I mentioned, I’ve never been successful at gym memberships, or running, or anything really that involves exercise where I can be seen. As I’ve rowed this last two years and tried to pick out just exactly what it is about it that I have loved, I had an intense realization. I love it, because I can do it alone in my basement, but the athletes and their location make me feel like I am not alone. I can do my workout, feel like a part of a team, and yet, no one can see me.

So much of my recovery from my marriage, and healing from life in general, has been about how feeling invisible wounded me, and how important it has been to let myself be seen and to learn to really see myself. It might seem contradictory for me to be so in love with an activity precisely because it allows me to remain unseen. The dichotomy of my life has always been a sense of invisibility among those who I most long to really see me, and a deeply uncomfortable hypervisibility in public. The sexualization of young girls and fatphobia compounded in my life and created a deep need to control as much as possible how my body shows up in public.

The profile of a young woman sitting on a couch looking at either someone talking or a television. On older woman sits on a couch perpendicular. Her body facing the camera, but her head and attention also on the television or person talking.

I didn’t have the language to understand it or describe it, but I was about 10-11 years old when I realized my body was no longer my own. Here is a picture of me in that time frame, 1983-4. My family had just moved across the country, leaving all our extended family in Minnesota. All of our belongings packed into a Chevy Malibu station wagon and the trailer my dad built to pull behind it, we left International Falls and headed west. My dad drove the whole way, I don’t remember much about the trip, except that every afternoon we’d stop at some diner for my parents to get coffee and I’d get a piece of pie. I’d always order cherry, because it was my favorite. When I look at this picture, I see what a child I still was. My legs still seem long and like I might get some good height, but I stopped growing taller not long after this. I hit about 5’4″ in 6th grade and just stayed there. It was the year I got those glasses, so it likely felt like some kind of miracle to be able to sit so far way from the TV and still see. The other thing happening in my body, though and you can see that as well in this picture, is that I’d started developing breasts. By they end of this year, I’d be wearing a bra at least one cup size bigger than my mothers.

It was this point that the adults around me started talking about my body. Well intentioned, or at least neutral observations about how early I’d started developing, but also ribald jokes about what such an early start might mean. Just how big would my breasts get? It was also at this point that older kids started commenting on my body in ways I didn’t understand. I remember, being at the school playground one afternoon. I’d either walked back down there to play by myself, or stayed afterschool for a while. I was mostly alone on the playground when two ‘older’ (maybe sixth grade, boys) came to the playground. We were all on some sort of climbing contraption, jungle gym style thing talking, when the tone shifted and they started asking me if I liked cherry pie and if I had some. Remember, that detail about afternoon stops on our trip out west? That was my only understanding of what cherry pie could be. So, I was confused and more than a little frightened by their tone and questioning. It felt like taunting. I knew some how it was about me, about my body, but didn’t understand. I don’t remember how I got out of that situation. I think I just walked away and went home. Given our ages, I am not entirely sure they even fully knew what they were talking about.

On a sunny day in spring 1987, two young girls sit on a sloped retaining wall. One has her knees pulled up and is smiling and talking. The other is turned, her full body to the camera, leaning on her right hip, her left leg outstretched, face turned to her companion. She is holding a small 35mm camera in her hand.

By the spring of 1987, I am pretty sure I’d outgrown all the estimates about how far my breasts would develop. Yes, that’s me in the red shirt, with the most terrible hair, but isn’t terrible hair a requirement in 8th grade? By this point, I’d started to understand what made me uncomfortable about the comments and jokes that had progressed to observations about how I must get black eyes when I ran. The boys at school would snap my bra strap, or find some other way to tease me about my breast. I don’t even recall what they would say. My most vivid memory is standing in a biology classroom with some popular boy in front of me, in my space, and asking something I knew to be rude and crude. Again, I don’t remember my reaction, other than my silence and my face burning. This is also the point in time where I know I began to think of myself as big or fat. I began trying to hide my body in the loosest clothes possible.

A highscool year book add for a the graduating group of students from the same elementary school.  The largest central picture is of all the older students.  It is surrounded by small grade school photos of each student.

By high school, that girl in the white shirt, front center in the bottom row, knew she was fat. The social pressure to be thin had kicked in and she knew that her shirts had to be a certain length to help hide her fatness. She’d had plenty of crushes, but very few serious boyfriends and hadn’t really done anything more than kiss a boy. Only one of those boy friends had been from our actual school. The rumor mill, though, it constantly vacillated between the competing theories that I was a lesbian or I was pregnant. I neve could figure that out.

By this point the boys had stopped snapping bras, but the random catcalls on the street had started. The jokes among the adults had changed to innuendos about what would happen when I started dating. Everyone around me was always talking about my body, and I was never allowed to be comfortable in it.

A woman stands in a grey off the shoulder top with a black bib jumper with a mid calf lenght skirt. She has on blue tights, and is holding a large gas station soda and a bag of Corn Nuts.

In 1989-90, when I absolutely should have rocked this Wynona Ryder, Heathers, look for Halloween, I never would have dared! This year, though, for my friend’s 80s themed fiftieth birthday party, I dared, even though now I am actually fat. I am small-fat for sure, but still fat. (Small-fat is a fat person who can still wear standard sized clothing.) Daring to choose this outfit that accentuates my breasts and doesn’t hide my fat, and wearing it to the party, demonstrate just how much I have learned to love and accept myself. How I am willing to step out into the world that may invite the comments I have been trying dodge and ignore my whole life.

A mirror selfie in an oval shaped bathroom mirrow. A woman stand leaning in the doorway. She uses her left arm to prop herself agains the door way. She is wearing a grey tank top, orange sports bra and black workout pants.

Many factors play into the fact that I dared to rock this outfit to that party, but my rowing journey is absolutely a huge part of that. Yes, my body had changed a bit over the past two years. I wear slightly smaller sizes. My always already good blood pressure has gone down and is even better, but the weight on the scale at the Dr.s office hasn’t changed much at all. Finding an exercise I enjoy, and that I can do without feeling like I am on display. Has given me the perspective and the strength to resist the incessant fatphobia of American culture and to give myself the compassion and love that everyone deserves. Celebrating my 1M meters, publicly and loudly, means so much to me, because it feels like making my body mine again.

I am still not joining a gym or running in public though. 😉

Reclaiming My Body Pt.1

A lay out of three pictures . Two small picutres stacked on the left. The top a workout summary, the bottom a celebratory badge showing a golden badge with crossed oars. The number 1 at the top and an M below to indicate 1 million meters rowed. The large picture on the right shows the work out summary for the workout when the 1M badge was earned.

Two years ago, at 47 years old, I took a very expensive gamble on myself. After a lifetime of signing up for YMCA or gym memberships and not using them, or using them only once or twice, and of getting pilates videos, hand me down eliptical machines, and treadmills and then not using them, I bought myself a rowing machine. All through 2020 lock down, I’d seen the Hydrow ads popping up in my social media feeds and thought I would like it. One look at the price, though, immediately put the brakes on any impulse purchases. At that point I didn’t even have a couch yet, I certainly wasn’t going to buy fitness equipment. About a year later, though, couch in place, the world still reeling from Covid, still vascilating between locking down and opening up, I took the plunge and finally order the machine and the whole kit that came with it. (In for a penny, in for a pound.)

April 2021. A smiling woman with short hair, bangs sweeping across her forehead, wears a high neck grey tank top and sits in a teal Adirondack style lawn chair.

I started rowing and within a week of doing those 15 minute sessions nearly every day, I knew this was different. For the first time in my life, I’d found an exercise I loved. From the moment I saw the first ad, I knew the rhythmic nature of the movement was going to appeal to me. Although I do love the rhythmic nature of the rowing, I don’t think any other machine would have captured my heart in the same way. After my intitial Hydrow sticker shock, I looked at sever other machines and seriously debated getting a different model. I am so glad I didn’t though. Look at my face in that picture, after just one week of rowing! I love rowing with Hydrow, because I workout with athletes who are on the water. I see really beautiful places from around the world as I row in my basement. The athletes are genuine and caring. They are motivational as they guide us through workouts and are so clearly working out themselves. When we finish a challenging workout, the athletes are just as sweaty and winded as I am.

Hydrow also motivates users by offering prizes for milestones. After rowing my first 100,000 meters, I got a water bottle, for 250,000, 500,000, and 750,000 meters I got different pairs of socks with the meter totals on the toes. Sure, I paid for those prizes with my monthly subscription fee and sweat, but they were hugely motivating for me. Like I said, I’d never had a workout stick before, I didn’t necessarily know how to set goals, not realistic ones that didn’t involve some kind of weight loss or change in body composition. From the beginning, my only goal was to be stronger and more fit. They are admirable goals, but not exactly measurable. They don’t necessarily allow you to see progress. My hydrow rewards helped me learn how to set smaller goals, ones that I could track and see.

A visibly sweaty, smiling woman with hair pulled back in a pony tail wears a scoop neck grey tank top and an orange sports bra.

Once I hit 100,000, I knew I was going for the Million Meter club. I didn’t really talk about it until after I made 750,00, but then it became real to me. It wasn’t an ephemeral goal. It was reality, because I already knew I could row the 250,000 meters to get from one goal to the next. “When I hit 1M meters, I’m going to … ” was my new language. It took almost exactly two years from my first row, but yesterday I DID IT! I rowed my one millionth meter. I may have a new definition of what constitutes sweaty, but rowing still makes me smile.

When I realized, after my work out on Wednesday, that I would meet this milestone yesterday, I went back and found my first row summary in order to make this comparison. Of course, once I finished yesterday’s workout, I immediately pulled together this lay out of pictures and blasted it all over my social media, and texted all my friends who wouldn’t see it through public channels! There will also be a party later, in about a month I think. Maybe sooner, now that I have made the mile stone; we’ll see how I feel and how it comes together.

A lay out of three pictures . Two small picutres stacked on the left. The top a workout summary, the bottom a celebratory badge showing a golden badge with crossed oars. The number 1 at the top and an M below to indicate 1 million meters rowed.
The large picture on the right shows the work out summary for the workout when the 1M badge was earned.

As you can see in the comparison, my million meter row was also the final row of a Spring Training Camp designed to help improve speed. In the fall/winter of 2021, I did the Endurance Training camp which it January of 2022 culminated in a 60 minute row. This spring, as I struggled to get back into the routine and habit of rowing regularly, I decided to give the Sprint Camp a try. It was a real challenge for me, another much smaller gamble on myself, because I really didn’t like rowing at high speeds like 30 strokes per minute (s/m). Five or six sessions in, I almost gave up on it. But, I stuck with it. So, yesterday, in one workout, I accomplished not one, but two rowing goals.

Serendipitously, it was also the perfect row in which to do this. You see, it isn’t just the rhythmic nature of the row that appeals to me, it is also the synchronicity. The way that matching up with the athlete allows you to forget about the big elements of the stroke: legs, core, arms, arms core, legs, and lets you focus on the details: relaxing your shoulders, hands, and face, keeping your posture, breathing. I enjoy working out with all the Hydrow athletes, but matching with some is easier for me than matching with others. For this workout Laine and I gelled. I don’t think my eyes ever really left her hands as she guided me through three 8 minute intervals. I’d turned off the leader board and purposefully ignored all my other metrics, because I knew that if I looked I’d constantly be worried about meeting the distance to make it to 1M. Laine is always super encouraging and breaks down segments so well, but this time the only thing I really remember her saying is, “Repetition breeds confidence.”

A mirror selfie in an oval shaped bathroom mirrow. A woman stand leaning in the doorway. She uses her left arm to prop herself agains the door way. She is wearing a grey tank top, orange sports bra and black workout pants.

I’m fairly certain that anyone who knows me has seen the truth of that statement over the last two years. Repetition bred confidence in my stroke. Legs, core, arms, arms, core, legs sounds simple and straight forward enough, but takes longer than you might expect to really get the hang of. Repetition bred confidence in my persistence. At one point I had a 70 week streak going (meaning I’d worked out at least once a week for 70 weeks). Repetition bred confidence in my recovery. Throughout the hard workouts of both of training camps, I maintained a steady “every-other-day” routine and trusted my body would be ready for the next one. Repetition bred confidence in myself. Sitting down to row, even when I did not want to row, making time to row, even when I did not want to row, taught me how to prioritize myself. Meeting those milestones, using sweat and time to earn my socks, taught me how to manage stress and my mental health.

I am stronger, in every way possible, at 49 than I have ever been in my life. And, in the next post, I will try to explain why and how it took me so long to get to this point. This post is just about the celebration, about the smile on my face after nearly every row, and about how I am so much closer to my RAD friend, who has been my accountability buddy on every step of this journey. Her encouragement has been fundamental to my persistence and success. It’s about looking at the change in my average split from 3:54 to 2:32 and viscerally feeling that progress.

Replenishment

A hand holding two four leave clovers above a grey couch.
A small overgrown lawn with a pillowy patch of clover infront of a large garbage and recycling bin.

“Mowing” the lawn for the second time this year, I started thinking about my relationship to the it. I don’t care that it is filled with clover. I still get a thrill every time I look down and find a four-leaf one. I pick them to tuck away into that day’s journal entry. I wish for it to be “better,” filled with flowers and prettier or with beds of vegetables and more sustaining. Yet, I only kind of know how to do those things, and the thought of how much work it would take to do them overwhelms me.

A hand holding two four leave clovers above a grey couch.
My yard always gifts me with luck. One day a couple of weeks ago, it was extraordinarily generous.

As I mowed this time, I tried thinking about what I like about the yard and the yard work. I realized I like what comes after the work. I love being covered in sweat; my shins coated green with lawn clippings, sitting in my lawn chair with a cold beer or water. After the beer, a cool shower to rinse everything off. Getting out of the shower, toweling off just enough not to make a mess, then laying down to air dry. Laying there, feeling the moisture evaporate from my skin, I can concentrate on my breath and think about everything or nothing. The lightness of my room from the sun through the shades, the gentle breeze from the ceiling fan that runs constantly most of the year, almost always combine to lull me into the perfect afternoon nap.


One of the privileges of my life is that, on the weekends at least, I generally have the privilege of napping whenever I want. Napping is actually a pretty good barometer by which to read how my life is going. When I find myself napping too much, I know to check-in with myself because I’m likely a little depressed about something. If I am napping too little, I know to check-in with all my boundaries, because I am likely working or socializing too much. How I talk to myself about my napping tells me when I need to work on my self-compassion practice. (Okay, so yes, I always need to work on my self-compassion practice.) Right now, napping is self-care.


I started practicing self-care before it became a capitalist commodity. Not with naps or even self-compassion, I wasn’t that good at it yet. I started with therapy that was, in my mind, ONLY about finishing my dissertation. In fact, I am pretty sure that woman never saw someone change the subject faster than when she brought up any other part of my life. I wouldn’t have called the therapy self-care at that time, but absolutely was and it led to the second most important piece of self-care I learned. I started keeping what I called The Distaster Notebook. It was thick, black with a soft cover and tiny grid paper. It started life as the place where pre-stroke, I was keeping my comp notes and dissertation ideas. Post-stroke it took a darker, more practical turn. What to do when someone you love is refusing to sign voluntary commitment paperwork. What to do when you have to find a mental health/rehab bed in a fairly isolated, rural, area. By the time I faced the end of the worst times, I had the process down. Get the DH in a safe environment, notify our support systems, find therapy for myself.


Doesn’t sound like self care, but it was. It was because of that notebook that I figured out caregiving 101 essentials like dump out, not in, know what you can control and what you can’t, and that you can’t give if you are empty. If you are care-giving, or being cared for, you have to find someone outside the immediate situation for venting. Knowing what you can control and what you can’t helps you manage your expectations. If you are care-giving or facing any kind of trying time, you have to make sure you do whatever you can to keep your battery full.


Sure, sometimes replenishing yourself means spending money on a new serum or mask for your nightly skin routine. Sometimes it means making time for yoga class, or booking that massage. Too often, though, those are the only ways we talk about self-care. We’ve almost managed to talk it into an empty concept. Sometimes though, and I think they might be the best times, replenishing yourself means taking time to air-dry after a shower, or drinking your morning coffee in the dark and quiet before the day officially begins, or listening to your favorite, saddest, album and singing along (or not), or making time to meet with friends. Most of the time it is some combination of these things.


It gets tempting to call anything we want self-care. To think that self-care is whatever we think it should be in the moment. But, doing that doesn’t benefit us. It generally doesn’t replenish us or reveal what we need to work through whatever has been depleting us. Replenishing is the operative word here. Self-care can be so many things, but in reality its always finding those things and people that replenish us in some way.

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.


Sometimes, when I meet new people and they hear my stories, the stroke, my marriage, the divorce they marvel at how much I have been through or how strong I am. Generally, I deflect their wonder by reminding them how my experience is “not that bad,” other people have been through worse; or, I say something about how its not that special, because if I can do something, any one can do it. What I don’t admit is that it was A LOT. I don’t always know how I got through it. Yes, I am strong, but I am not strong because I got through it. I am strong because I learned how to soften and care for myself, how to be resilient, as I got through it.

As we face the end of semesters, school years, and the space of summer, how will you find the things and people that replenish you?

Embracing the New

A woman in a pink coat stands with her hand on a fence looking into the distance with a small scowl and furrowed brow. The Washington Monument is in the background.

April came in like a lion!
On March 31st I finished an extra assignment at work that thoroughly wore me out, so I was ready for a rest, but here we are and I swear the last couple of weeks have been packed with sweetness. Just the other day I looked out the sliding glass door at the trees across the way and realized the “greening” had happened. The pollen had been on the rise and everything was budding, but overnight the buds had started opening. I love that moment. It feels like the year and my spirits catch the wind and lift like a kite taking off.

A woman in a pink coat stands with her hand on a fence looking into the distance with a small scowl and furrowed brow. The Washington Monument is in the background.
One of my favorite pictures from the trip.


The first weekend of the month I met a friend from Bemidji in DC. We spent an absolutely lovely couple of days walking around. We didn’t see all the sites, but enough of them. I know that my ability to make develop friendships wherever I am is a gift. Y’all know that all of my friendships are significant to me. Something special happened in Bemidji, though, the depth of my Bemidji friends feels remarkable. I was there for such a short time and at such a difficult time of my life it might have been easy not to connect with many people. Yet, I remained tied to that place and those people in such a special way.


Wednesday brought me so many blessings this week. An unexpected chat with a colleague I rarely see brought me the most amazing “new to me” music.

A lot of swearing and frustration with auto-correct led to a new friendship. The day didn’t let me check much off my actual “To-Do” list, but the other tasks I had to do brought me a new perspective and vision about what my work could be.


Thinking through the beginning of this month, the changing of the seasons, the interplay between my old and new worlds, my thoughts turning to thresholds, boundaries, and transitions hardly shocked me. The familiar cog clicked into place, and a quick Google search confirmed, we are solidly into the seven weeks of Omer. The way that since I learned about it around 2017, when I found this article from Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg, this time always makes itself known to me is something I can’t quite parse. Perhaps that is because every year feels a little different. As my new life takes shape, I no longer feel as anxious or as untethered in the transition.

Two women smiling into the camera. They are inside the library of congress, one visibly holds a glass of wine.
The evening of April 6th in the Library of Congress. Old friends, new spaces.

My life is much less neutral space and I have a bit more confidence about what this new life will look like. This year, though, Omer started on the evening of April 6th with the most beautiful mix of the old and new.

This week practicing the things that help me stay present, not creating expectations, not telling myself stories to interpret experiences, not taking things personally, shone a light on other lessons I’ve learned since my birthday. My new life is taking shape. It’s wondrous and full of new adventures big and small. Yet, even as I embrace those adventures, I can see the old patterns, habits, and armor I can’t quite put down. I am not sure how I feel about that. Being present here, admitting that while I may be less confused and anxious this is still the neutral space, because there are still parts of my old life I can’t put down, that’s hard to face. I’ve done so much work, and it seems like there is still so much to do.


It may be hard to face, but if my life has taught me anything it is that I can do hard things. In fact, I think I do hard things better than easy things. My face may not always show it, but at least I start this hard thing from a foundation of peace and joy.

Second Vacations are the Second Breakfasts of the Soul

A small, blue, flat-roofed houseboat entrance from the street.

As usual, there’s so much catching up to do that I don’t really know where to start. Actually, there is only one place to start, the Netherlands! (Forgive the picture placement, I couldn’t get them to line up with the text the way I wanted.)

My second vacation of 2022 required me to use a passport for the first time! No, I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to post about it all either! My good friend Dr. Researcher presented at a conference in Amsterdam, and I was able to tag along and share hotel rooms for the trip. It was the most amazing experience. We arrived a couple of days before the conference started and spent two nights in Zaandam, so we could go to Zaanse Schans to see the Windmills. We stayed in a houseboat and it was magical.

A brunette woman in a black vest, black sweater, and jeans stands at the shore in front of a windmill. In the background there are other windmills in the distance.
Dr. Researcher is my new personal photographer. She got amazing shots the whole trip.
Amsterdam canal at night, dusk.  The sky is still a bit blue, but the street and cafe lights are on.
Amsterdam canal at dusk.

Seriously.
When we got off the train from the hotel, the whole town smelled like chocolate.
Figuring out how to pay for public transportation was a bit stressful, and I’m pretty sure we got several free rides about town. Everyone was extremely nice and made it feel comfortable. The town and the windmills were so much fun to see! We had beautiful weather, particularly for October, the whole time we were there. It was a bit windy and cloudy the day we spent in Zaanse Schans, but it didn’t rain.

After that we went into Amsterdam for the conference. There was a canal tour the first day, walking all over the city, museums, and of course silliness and fun.

Brunette woman, in a black vest and white shirt, laughing while keeping her mouth closed on a bit of food.  background is a sunny square in Amsterdam.
The Krentenbollen incident.

We stopped at street cart to try krentenbollen, which are covered in powdered sugar. In the middle of my first bite the wind blew all of the powdered sugar in my face. In true great friend fashion, Dr. Researcher laughed and took my picture before helping me get cleaned up. It will forever be one of my favorite pictures.

A modern apartment block along a canal in Rotterdam. The fronts of the apartments slope slightly outward at the base.
Rotterdam apartment block.

One day, while Dr. Researcher conferenced, I took the train down to Rotterdam. I loved it so much! I would love to take another trip to the Netherlands and make Rotterdam my central city. As crazy as it sounds, if the opportunity arose, I’d absolutely move there. Yes. It would be a major adjustment, but I felt that comfortable and at home.


There’s no way to capture what this trip did for me. It taught me so much about being present, about friendship, and about the abundance of joy and love in my life. The trip wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing friendship Dr. Researcher and I have developed out of a mutual love of Val McDermid and a fascination with serial killers. In the time leading up to this trip, everyone else in my friends-family, new and old, expressed their joy for me and kept reminding me that I deserved this trip. Getting so far away allowed me to be fully present. It was a beautiful glimpse of my authentic self, of who I can be when I show up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart for myself.

Muscle Memory

A regular sized white coffee mug, with series of motivational phrases written in blue and green text from the top to the bottom. Dream Big, Work Hard, Be Brave, Shine Bright, Fuck Off

“Writing is a perishable skill.”

Last year, about this time, when I was first given the opportunity to give writing lectures to 200 students at a time, I started from this point.

Actually, I took a moment to challenge the room. I described how I’d already met so many of them in them center, signed them up for classes, workshops, and individual appointments. And, how almost everyone of those encounters started with the student stating some version of “I suck at writing.” I paused for just a second, made eye contact with various people, and I asked, “When was the last time any of you got better at something by walking around talking about how terrible you are at it?”
Some audible groans, chuckles, and head shakes filled the room.
I went on to tell them that writing is a perishable skill. If they hadn’t been writing in the last ten years – and very few of them had, then of course they weren’t going to be very good at it right now. I even did my level best to make a sports analogy about how if you stopped playing a sport for 10 years, you couldn’t expect to start playing again at the same level.

Last week, I did the same bit, but I sharpened it a bit, simplified. I still started with “Writing is a perishable skill,” but then I simplified, “which means writing is a skill.” A skill you can practice and develop. My lectures are a part of a series designed to shepherd the students through their cumulative degree process. At this point in the year, I’m trying to give them as much motivation, hope, and faith in the process as I can. Hoping they will start working on their writing skills to prepare them for the drafting work that will come in January – March.

I love this time of year, and I hate this time of year. I love the new class/new year energy. I hate the way I feel like a fraud for telling a truth I know I do not practice. Although I’ve journaled faithfully nearly every day of the last year, I haven’t done any sort of what I would call “writing” in that time. Nothing that I intend to share with an audience.

Looking back, when I wrote that last post about energy levels, I didn’t realize how depleted I was. I have perhaps needed this break. My entire life has been about pushing through, moving forward, which has been tremendously helpful. And, writing, specifically blogging has been one of the ways I’ve always kept pushing, even when I could only manage one post a month, or year. Yet, this past year, I couldn’t keep it up in spite of an excellent plan and outline for a series. I just had no more energy for writing. I didn’t have much energy for anything, so I rested.

My word for this year was “balance.” Thinking back, I can see how all the rest and all the pampering of myself I have done this last year helped to create a balance in my life. It taught me a bit about how to be in my new life. Yes, I am still trying to figure that out. My new life is full of abundance in just about every way imaginable and balancing in this environment has been about learning to embrace the time and space that abundance allows with massages, facials, retreats, and rest.

I felt like a fraud last year as I spoke about writing and that feeling only compounded this year. So, here I am. Attempting to work a muscle that I’ve let atrophy for the past fifteen months. It’ll take time and it’ll be clunky, but it’s time to get back into writing shape. Rowing for the past 70 weeks has taught me a bit about perseverance, but clearly, I’m still not the best at motivating myself.

A regular sized white coffee mug, with series of motivational phrases written in blue and green text from the top to the bottom. Dream Big, Work Hard, Be Brave, Shine Bright, Fuck Off
Motivating myself.

Read Arounds

Pre-ordering books sounded like such a great idea to me at one point. Once, I was so excited about a book, I pre-ordered it the moment it was possible, because I had the money right then at that moment. At that time in my life, there was no telling what emergency might have sprung up by the book’s actual release date, leaving me without the ability to buy the book. I pre-ordered and forgot about it. Never realizing that Amazon didn’t actually charge me for my pre-order. It wasn’t until the date of the book release, and I was finally charged for the pre-ordered book. Yes, an emergency had come up, and while it didn’t lead to a complete disaster, there was no way I would have chosen to spend $25 on a book that particular week. The result of that experience is that even today, when I know more about the system and can better whether a random $25 charge, I am very hesitant to pre-order a book.

I know it helps out author’s and there are more good reasons to do it. Recently, I even had a good experience pre-ordering a book. In mid-February, I’d pre-ordered a book due out on March 2nd. Waking up that morning, I got my coffee and excitedly opened my Kindle and dove in. That book was everything I expected and more. It was so good that by Sunday I’d finished the book I started on Tuesday, and ordered a physical copy, because I wanted to write about the book, underline things, and explore footnotes and sources in a way that I just can’t really do on a Kindle. Don’t get me wrong, the Kindle is perfectly capable of doing what I need. I just do not like to do my research in that way, and when I am writing with a book, I really need to be able to flip through the pages to find that passage I underlined.

Yes, you’ll get the title and hear about that book eventually, but it is going to be a few posts. The message of the book is important, dramatically important, but in an unfortunate way would be undermined for many people if I dove right in without some context. The title alone would turn a good many people off, or perhaps spur you to “hate-read” the book, looking for places to disagree with and discredit the author. So, instead of writing a quick review for the book review series, I want to use this book to start a new series.
Earlier this year, Tressie McMillan Cottom (TMC) started her new site, Essaying. She launched it with an amazing essay on Dolly Parton. Whether or not you love or hate country music, that essay is worth signing up to read. Dolly is the center of the piece, the subject, but the essay is not about revealing new aspects of Parton. The essay is about identifying what Parton reveals about our culture and ourselves.

After the Dolly essay, TMC’s follow up essay provided insight into her writing process. The essay titled, “Sleep Around Before You Marry and Argument” identifies two primary ways to research for what she calls a “strong narrative essay,” reading for consensus about a topic and reading around a topic. TMC describes reading for consensus as, “straightforward.” It is what it sounds like reading everything you can about one particular subject. Whereas reading around a topic, involves a little more detective work, it requires you to ask questions about the subject to define it, and to discover why it is important. You can absolutely see this approach at work in TMC’s article on Dolly Parton, even before she breaks the process down for us.


While what I am envisioning is unlikely to end up as an essay, before diving into the content of the influential book I read in March I want to read around the topic a bit with you. In taking this approach, I want to start with the fundamentals, and take you on a bit of a tour of what I’ve been reading about this topic for about the last five years or so. In the course of this series, I’m certain I’ll dip back into one or two books I’ve already covered here, but I hope that I’ll do so with new purpose and insight. So, as I ease back into regular entries, I’ll be cycling through my short book reviews, miscellaneous updates, and this read around. Yes, I am still reading other things, and I’m a bit behind with my reviews and updates anyway. I am not sure how long this series will be maybe just two – three entries, maybe a bit more. I’ll work to get it started in a couple of weeks.

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.