Traveling Alone

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Tonight I am in a hotel room alone. I am typing this from a king-sized bed I have all to myself. The room is quiet except for the traffic on the interstate outside the window. I don’t have the TV on, and I have cranked the air conditioning down as low as I want.

I am traveling by myself, which is unusual for me, and last night when I got here, I still had a few hours before my typical summer bedtime. I wandered outside in the perfect evening warmth of a summer night, watching a particularly fine sunset streak the sky pink over the interstate. I walked around the perimeter, just to see what was there, and I breathed in the soft air. 

Inside, I walked around the lobby and the halls, peering into the fitness room and moving carefully around the pool. It was noisy in there, and wet foot prints dribbled from the door and into the elevator and down the hall to the vending machine, where I bought my bottle of water. Too much happy noise made me miss my family, who are absolutely the most fun in a hotel.

Still, I felt grateful, tucked away in my room under the covers with a stack of books and a video playing on the computer. Solitude is the name of the game here, and sometimes my soul just can’t drink enough of it. I stayed up way too late reading good books, and I got up way too early so I could eat a quiet breakfast in bed. 

Could I do all these things at home? Yes. Would I do them? I don’t, at least not consistently. I might glance out a window to catch a glimpse of the twilight sky while running the vacuum or rushing people into the bath. I might read for a while, but my thoughts would be scattered by people wanting, and deserving, attention.

Who are you, in a new place, all alone? Up here in my room, I feel more deeply like myself, with only my own whims to follow, and I let myself take up all the space I want and need. I follow thoughts to their conclusion and chase my imagination down rabbit trails. I take out my notebook and write, and I practice large, loopy letters on a fresh page. I am content and happy. 

Travel does this. It lets you escape from yourself and pulls you into yourself more fully, and it allows you the chance to remember who you are. 

 

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How I Read

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Every summer, I have a list of goals I’d like to accomplish. Usually they are oriented around the house–I want to paint a room, or clean out cabinets, or donate clothes and toys. This summer, I made my typical list on my phone, but in a vague way. I had general ideas about things it would be lovely to get done, but I wasn’t fooling myself at all. My main goal for this summer was to read.

This has been an absolutely fabulous summer for books. I have not been able to read fast enough to keep up with all the wonderful new books that have come out, and I’ve been reading quickly. There have only been a few books this summer that I did not like, and that was unusual enough that it actually made me angry. I have a huge stack of books waiting that I can’t wait to read, and more on library reserve. My life feels good when it’s full of books.

Maybe you’re the same way, but you are having trouble fitting books into your current situation. It’s one of the things people tell me when we talk about books–they wish they read more, but they just don’t have time. 

I understand this feeling. My life, while a little slower in the summer, is typically a constant rush. But I do believe that we generally have time for the things we want to do, and so while I don’t have magic answers for how to make more time for reading, I can share the strategies that have worked for me over a lifetime of mostly just wanting to read.

  1. I always carry a book with me. Even when I think there is no possible way that I would have any time to read, I bring a book. I favor paperbacks whenever possible, because they are lighter and fit more easily into whatever bag I am carrying. The library book I am currently reading is a large hardback, so I tossed it into the back seat of the car today. It’s always surprising how much reading I can do in the cracks of time–while I’m waiting for my husband to come out of his office, while my family is listening to a baseball game on the radio, when I have arrived early for an appointment. Five minutes here stacked on five minutes there adds up, and if it’s a good book, you won’t have trouble remembering what’s going on even when you’re reading in small bites.
  2. I read more than one book at a time. I like to have a novel going and something nonfiction, preferably something to do with my faith. This sounds like it would slow down my reading, but it actually provides a nice balance. Sometimes a particular book will drag, or I’ll realize it’s not for me, but I’m not ready to drop it. If I was only reading one book when these things happened, I would probably stop reading entirely. As it is, I have another book to fall back on and keep the reading momentum going. Reading in different genres like this also creates variety. However, I’ve found that reading more than two books at a time often makes me scattered, and reading two novels at once causes difficulties in holding together the plots. A fiction and a nonfiction seem to do nicely for my attention span.
  3. I take advantage of short time frames. Not only do I carry a book with me, but I also keep one around constantly at home. One corner of my coffee table is reserved for a small stack of books I’m currently reading, including a book of poetry and my Bible. Having my books centrally located means that whenever the kids turn on a cartoon I’ve already seen or my son wants to watch a DVD of baseball highlights, I have a book at the ready. If they are playing quietly together, I can grab a book, sink into the couch, and probably count on fifteen minutes or so. Again, even little amounts of time add up.
  4. I reserve books from the library. This saves me money, and it also produces a kind of pressure. Other people are waiting, and I need to get books read. It’s sad, but the books that I buy often stack high without my feeling any particular urgency. But when I get a book on library reserve, when I’ve been on the list for a long time and know other people are waiting, I can fly through it. Just yesterday morning, my husband reminded me that a book I’m reading now is due in a couple of days, and as soon as I’m done writing here, I am planning to double down on reading it.
  5. I drop books that aren’t for me. For most of my life I was determined to read any book I started, in case it got better by the end. Now I let myself not care about the end of a book that wasn’t fun to read. There are way too many good books I’m never even going to get to, and I refuse to waste time on a book that doesn’t feel right to me. This doesn’t mean that I won’t read outside of my genre, or that I don’t value reading outside my comfort zone, but it does mean that I know my triggers, and if a book trips those, I will pause and consider whether I want to continue reading. Giving up on some books has been a kind of freedom and has made space for more books I really want to read. 
  6. After the kids go to bed is my reading time, and I don’t watch a lot of adult TV. This one is occasionally difficult for me, because I really do love movies and shows, and sometimes I miss having a show I always watch. I also miss re-watching old shows, like Friends or Gilmore Girls or The Office, but with my kids still so young, I don’t have a ton of time for adult shows anyway. Especially when I’m working, that tiny window after the kids go to bed is my only solid reading time, and when I’m weighing books against TV, it’s not even a contest. Books just feed my soul. 

This is a fairly solid list of how I manage to read so many books. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. But if you’re hoping to read more, maybe at least one of my strategies will work for you. As I keep reminding my immensely competitive husband, reading books is not a race, and no one really cares if you read more or less than anyone else. The idea is to find something you enjoy and try even one thing that gives you a little more time to read it. 

I really hope you do.

Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans

 

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I didn’t write about Rachel Held Evans after she passed away, because I simply didn’t know how to. It isn’t as if I ever met her. I didn’t know her at all. We weren’t friends or family. To my knowledge, we were never at the same events or even in the same towns at the same times. And yet my life has been changed by her, by this perfect stranger, this kind, thoughtful, funny woman whom I never even met. 

That’s the power of a good book.

Rachel Held Evans died on May 4, 2019. She was a former evangelical Christian who left the evangelical church so that she could hold on to Jesus. She wrote four books full of deep thought on faith, thoughts that challenge and provoke and push against the status quo, and always reach for Jesus. I did not agree with her on every conclusion or direction, but I always admired the way she struggled to define through the Bible what it means to truly follow God, and her writing always sent me to prayer and contemplation. My husband says she reminds him of a quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr., when he said he hoped people would remember he tried to be right on a certain controversial and political situation. He was grasping and seeking. Rachel was too.

For my birthday this year, Joe gave me her first book, Faith Unraveled, formerly titled Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. It was the first book she wrote but the last book of hers that I read, which is a bittersweet way to read her work. In it, she discusses the evolution of her faith. It’s the story of her journey from certainty through doubt and back to faith again, a story of belief maturing and growing legs and feet. In the end of the book, she wrote the following:

“I suppose that if absolute truth exists, it must be something that we experience indirectly, like the sun. We see it in shadows, watch it light up the moon, and feel it tingle our skin, but it’s generally not a good idea to try to stare at it or claim it as one’s own. Every now and then, when I’m reading the Bible or Emily Dickinson, I think I’ve bumped into it. But when I try to tell Dan [her husband] about it, it doesn’t come out right. I think I see little pieces of it in all the people I know…I believe it is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ, which means it is relational, because everyone experiences Jesus a little differently.”

I would never have thought to express it in this way, but the mystery of faith fascinates me, and I am, like Rachel, looking for glimpses of Jesus in this world. Like this quotation says, I have seen him, and I have missed him, and I have learned so much about where to find him thanks to people who experience him differently from how I do.

In some ways I wish I had met Rachel Held Evans, because she sought and stood up for truth. All truth is God’s truth, whether I understand it or not, and in my moments of doubt, I cling to the faith that leads me through the dark times where I cannot see. Rachel’s books were lanterns God used to light my way, and I will be forever grateful.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

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(Apologies for the poor picture)

I have never been to therapy, but it has been suggested for me more than once, mostly by my long-suffering husband, who has talked me through incoherent anxieties and ridiculous expectations, and who is a big believer in the power of a trained and impartial observer to help you see your life in a new way. And having seen the transformative power of therapy in others, I have often been intrigued by the possibilities for what can happen in the privacy of that room.

I got a glimpse into these possibilities in the book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. The author, Lori Gottlieb, is a therapist herself, and she writes about the importance of relationship, the desire for connection, and the various ways people deal with pain, all within the context of her therapy practice and her own therapy with a trusted professional. Despite being 412 pages, the book was a fast read. Chapters are short, and the characters are compelling, including the author herself. The text is peppered with insight into the knowledge therapists use to help their clients, and while I was totally captivated by the stories, I also couldn’t help but reflect on how to apply the wisdom to my own life.

For instance, near the end of the book, Gottlieb writes this:

 

“’The more you welcome your vulnerability,’ Wendell had said, ‘the less afraid you’ll  feel.’

“This isn’t how we tend to view life when we’re younger. Our younger selves think in terms of a beginning, middle, and some kind of resolution. But somewhere along the way–perhaps in that middle–we realize that everyone lives with things that may not get worked out. That the middle has to be the resolution, and how we make meaning of it becomes our task. Although time feels like it’s slipping away and I just can’t hold on to it, something else is true too: My illness has sharpened my focus. It’s why I couldn’t write the wrong book. It’s why I’m dating again. It’s why I’m soaking in my mother and looking at her with a generosity I have for so long been unable to access. And it’s why Wendell is helping me examine the mothering I’ll leave Zach with someday. Now I keep in mind that none of us can love and be loved without the possibility of loss but that there’s a difference between knowledge and terror.”

 

I am 40 years old. I am definitely somewhere in the middle, and I find myself thinking often about the ending that is coming. I imagine what my family might see as my last words, my last journal entry, my last anything. Driving down the interstate today, I passed the remains of a horrendous wreck, and I found it chilling that just that morning, a man had gotten into his car and had no idea he was breathing his last breaths.

My little sister was only 17 when she died, and she didn’t get a neat resolution. I am guaranteed nothing either. And yet, while that thought is scary, it’s also freeing. This is the moment I have tonight, typing away on my couch with my feet in my husband’s lap, the plaid blanket my kids picked out for me at Christmas wrapped around my body. The Cubs are playing on TV, and I can hear the music echoing from my daughter’s room as she goes to sleep. This is the middle of my life, and however much time I have left or I don’t, I can live in this moment; I can taste it and hold it and see it for what it is: it is good, and it is from God.

Put this one on your list, and see what your insights are.

Summer Reading, Part One

Summer reading is absolutely wonderful. I love flying through books and then looking around to choose the next one, and I don’t mind a mediocre book as much in the summer, when I can be done in a couple of days, as opposed to the school year, when it would take me over a week.

My birthday is in the summer too, which is always an opportunity to stock up on things I’ve been eagerly awaiting, and this year, I have taken advantage of library reserves to supplement my already tall piles of books waiting to be read. It’s been an exceptional June so far, and it’s only half over! Here’s a reading recap for this month so far.

 

  • The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary. I’m a sucker for a fun beach read, and I also love a romance that isn’t gross. This fits both categories. Tiffy has just broken up with her boyfriend and needs a cheap apartment fast. Leon, who works nights in the medical field, needs money to help his brother. The two share an apartment–and a bed–but have never met, as they agree to use the apartment at different times, and communicate by post-its. It’s light and tender with just the right amount of depth. I did not want to return it to the library when I finished, but alas, other people were waiting. This was the first book I read in June, and it set the bar high.
  • Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff. This book, following the events of 9/11 from the early morning to the planes to the towers to the Pentagon and to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, pulled all the pieces of the day together for me. I was in my first year of teaching on 9/11, and I didn’t know what to tell my seventh graders. I tried to carry on with class as usual, and as a result, my understanding of the sequence of events from the day had a lot of holes. This book filled in all the gaps and put real faces with the tragedies of that day. It was harrowing and heartbreaking and truly a necessary read. At the end, I was left with a picture of the strength and beauty of the human spirit in the midst of horror.
  • Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas by Dav Pilkey and The Problim Children by Natalie Lloyd. My daughter added these to my summer stack, and I always love to read what she is reading.
  • Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin. This is an Indian remake of Pride and Prejudice, and was immensely fun to read. Ayesha, a substitute teacher who wants to be a poet, does not want an arranged marriage. Khalid, who does something in computing (it was a library book and I can’t check it), firmly believes that love comes after marriage and is trusting his manipulative mother to make an appropriate match for him. As a huge Jane Austen fan, I loved seeing the overlapping storyline, proving that whatever the culture, people are people. I also enjoyed reading this book set in the Muslim community, as it is different from my own in many ways, but also, as people are people, so very similar.
  • The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay. While the events of this book were outside my experience, it felt very accessible to me, probably because of how well the characters were written. It follows three different women who are all affected by the death of the town’s bookshop owner–one is her niece, who inherits the shop, and the other two are the store’s employees. Each is also dealing with problems in her private life according to her career and life stage. Madeline is an attorney so focused on making partner at an important Chicago firm that she has forgotten to focus on relationships; Claire is a middle-aged woman who is new in town and is struggling to make friends and maintain connection with her husband and children; and Janet is older than Claire and reeling from the divorce caused by her infidelity and the breach in every other significant relationship she has as a result. The story is a testament to the importance of friendship, community, meaningful work, and doing the hard things with integrity. It’s also about the power of faith and the power of books. It’s another I may have to buy a copy of just so I can read it again. I love what Reay was able to do with these three characters, and how powerful they were to relate to, whatever your stage in life.
  • Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winnifrey and Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim. Both of these were light, easy reads. I flew through them and each of them just felt like summer.

 

I’d post pictures, but these were mostly library books, which brings me so much joy. I’d forgotten exactly what a great resource the library can be, and I’ve been wearing out my husband, who has to stop by every other day on his way home from work to grab another of my reserves. I can’t wait to see what else summer reading will bring me.

Rough Start

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We waited all year for summer–warm days, bright sunshine, slow evenings, and long walks. We looked forward to lightning bugs, library visits, lazy mornings, fun trips, and time together. I piled up books to read and games to play, and we daydreamed our bucket lists.

But we are not even a week into summer yet… and summer has not been quite what we expected.

I didn’t expect old worries to itch in the back of my mind. I expected to open summer with a really fun, highly anticipated family activity, only to have it ruined by circumstances beyond our control. I didn’t expect to start summer by licking my wounds and watching a sermon online from home, alone.

I started summer in pain and confusion and a little bit of fear.

But God did not give us a spirit of fear.

So yes, summer didn’t begin the way I thought it would. But this summer has also been mocha blasts with my sister–our traditional way to welcome the season. Summer has been reading really great books late into the night. Summer has been coffee in one hand and Instagram in the other. It’s been a pile of Starburst wrappers on the arm of the couch, abandoned by the boy who can’t wait to cheer the Wii baseball game he loves to play with his dad.

This year, summer is books cluttering the floor and the coffee table and the couch. It’s laughter late at night with stars splayed across the ceiling and jellyfish frolicking in a cage of water by the bed. It’s a small hand in mine, and the words tumbling over each other as my kids hurry to spill everything they’ve been thinking and feeling. It’s a foreign movie with subtitles, and it’s reading the Harry Potter books again with two kids for whom the magical world is still real.

We may have had a rough start, but it’s still summer, and the magical moments are there, waiting to be discovered.

For the Love of Old Books

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I just finished reading How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper, and I really enjoyed it. I liked Andrew, the main character, and I really liked Peggy, and I was pulling for them the whole book. I love a new read like this, one that was so completely satisfying, but after a book like that, the question, of course, is what should I read next?????

I went to my shelf of books gathering dust which functions as my TBR pile. There were all kinds of books on that shelf that I truly want to read, but none of them fit my start-of-summer mood: smart, funny, strong characters, strong story, meaningful, well-written, ultimately hopeful. It’s a tall order.

Then I solved the problem. I went to my wall of bookshelves in what my kids call the book room, and I browsed the books I’ve already read.

When I was a little girl, I was a massive re-reader. I didn’t have access to a ton of new books, and I had to save my money to buy more, but mostly, if I loved a book I owned–or a comic book, or even just a book I checked out from the library–I wanted to enjoy it again and again. I read fairly quickly, and I could re-read even more quickly. I lived in the stories and the characters mostly through my insatiable re-reading. I would read the last page of a book and flip back to the beginning and start again.

As I grew up, this habit largely faded. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the stories, but all too often, the books I read weren’t as consistently good as the ones when I was younger. Also, I had more money, and I bought more books, which I then needed to read. My time to devote to re-reading favorites disappeared.

But it’s a habit I want to bring back. I’m currently reading Pat Conroy’s Beach Music for the second time, although it is my favorite of his novels. This was my first Conroy novel (I wrote about my love for his books here), and as I read this time, I appreciate aspects of his style and story that I didn’t have the tools to see the first time. His writing is so distinctive and descriptive that from the first evocative sentences, which are very dark indeed, I was transported to a place of comfort and happiness. This time, I knew, at least loosely, where he was taking me, and I could not wait to go along. I couldn’t wait to know these characters again, to hear their unique voices.

Although I am starting this summer with a pile of new books that I am so excited to read, I hope to work through a lot of old favorites this summer too. Reading an old book is like sitting with an old friend. I see you. I know you. I’m comfortable with you. Let’s hang out together, and neither of us has to say a new word.