Belated Reflections

2014 was a doozy for me. The majority of it was mostly miserable, and then late in the game things started to turn around. I have been mulling over what all of those changes and feelings have taught me, and this is the result of all that mulling:

Radical change has the potential to be your savior, if you let it.

Listen to your gut. I should’ve left long before I did, but I always came up with half-assed reasons to stay. I eventually did end up leaving, and as soon as I made the change I knew it was the right thing. Even when things weren’t working out quite the way I envisioned, I knew I couldn’t go back. The only way out was forward.

Don’t treat people like they’re precious. Do your best to save the relationship, but ultimately if someone makes you feel like shit and disrespects you, pull that rip chord. I walked out of an eight year friendship that was mostly great, until it really wasn’t.

If you need a night where you drink too much and dance with strangers and tell them your name is Stephanie, do it. Don’t feel bad.

Blame my introvertedness, but I consider myself to be mostly a thinker that is up in my head almost all of the time. This is great in certain respects, like self awareness, but it can also lead to my brain being my worst enemy in creating all types of stress and expectations that make me feel like a failure. This year taught me above all else to use my body to beat my brain. I have never used my feet on trails/sidewalks, in running shoes, on bike pedals as much as I did in 2014. I used those chemicals to combat all the bad things happening in my brain, to turn off the incessant flow of thoughts, to exhaust myself physically so I could actually sleep at night. It worked, and I ended up healthier and more fit than I have ever been.

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In the same vein, nature also waged that war for me with silence and beauty and the feeling of the wind on my skin.

I pride myself on being independent and intensely private, but sometimes you have to let people into your trenches. Return the favor and get into theirs. You will all be stronger.

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The Ripe and the Ruin

Yesterday morning, Anchorage, Alaska, experienced a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that shook the city’s buildings and residents. As a native Ohioan, it took me a moment to figure out what was happening and how to react. Shortly after it was over and my adrenaline level had returned to normal, I went to work at one of the downtown gift shops. My boss, who lived through the infamous 1964 Good Friday earthquake, said it was the biggest one she could remember within the past few years. All throughout the day, most people in the gift shop were talking about the quake, where they were when it happened, and how they reacted.

A solid nine hours later, I went on a bike ride towards the ocean. As I was coasting down a winding hill, I caught a glimpse of the ocean and mountains silhouetted by glowing pink light as the sun set. I stopped my bike and stared. It was enchanting.

Earthquakes in the morning, stunning sunsets at night. It’s fascinating how the same piece of earth can produce one unnerving event and another awe inspiring one only a few hours apart. In fact, the very elements that produced those mountains are the same elements that factor into the occurrences of earthquakes.

Life is earthquakes and mountains. Peaks and valleys. Ups and downs. The ripe and the ruin. However you want to describe it, there are things in life that will shake you – sometimes literally – and things that will captivate you and hold you still. The length and intensity of those things will vary, but they occupy the same space.

If you are experiencing the earthquake part of life, hold on and wait for the sunset.

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Only a fraction as beautiful as it was in person.

It’s National Poetry Month, Y’all

Hopefully, since we’re three quarters of the way through April, you’ve already heard that it’s National Poetry Month.

I used to think poetry was not my jam. I mean, short, sometimes non-sensical half phrases that tend to be way over my head? Not for me. Give me a good novel with interesting characters and complete sentences any day.

But then one time, I don’t even remember where, I read a poem by Sylvia Plath about thunderbirds and closing your eyes and the whole world dropping dead, and since then I’ve realized that poetry has a lot of potential for maximum impact within a short amount of space. Finding poems you enjoy is like photography; you have to take a good number of shots to get a few good ones.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, I’d like to share some of these lyrical gems I’ve discovered over the past few years.

First up, Plath’s aforementioned thunderbird poem A Mad Girl’s Love Song, as well as another favorite of hers called I Am Vertical.

The infamous Charles Bukowski wrote a beauty called The Laughing Heart, which is an excellent reminder to seek out the light and good in life.

There’s this one – written by I don’t even know who – that I found one day stumbling through the Black Hole otherwise known as the internet. Everyone who terrifies you is sixty five percent water. Love.

Maybe you’re more visual or like your poetry in spoken word form? That’s available too.

Even amateur hour-ish scribbles in notebooks count:

I wish
I was a seed,
So I could blow
away with the wind
and replant
someplace
else.

Maybe you don’t trust my judgement. Buzzfeed has a list of 36 life changing poems you can check out too.

In general, if you’re looking to dip your toes into the metaphorical water, you can’t go wrong with Maya Angelou, e.e. cummings, Thomas Hennen, Sylvia Plath, or the variety offered in The Best American Poetry series.

Are there any other reluctant poetry converts out there? Do you have any favorite writers or poems? How are you honoring National Poetry Month?

March 2014 Books

March was mostly a good reading month. I dug into some books and absorbed them pretty quickly. I did have a week or so where it was hard for me to want to read, but that tends to happen here or there when I’ve been reading endlessly.

1. The Good Daughters – Joyce Maynard. This was one of those subtle books that seeps into your bones and stays there. Maynard’s writing flows and is beautiful, and she weaves the story between two young girls, Ruth and Dana, born in the same small town on the same day, intricately from their youth through their adult lives. There was a bit of a predictable revelation partway through the book, but the ending adds another little twist that I didn’t see coming.

2. Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke… Rilke gets life. This book is a short collection of letters the poet wrote to a young man who was at a military school that Rilke once attended. He advises the young man mostly to turn inward, to be alone and resolve his values and beliefs and direction in life. He writes gems such as:

“Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.”

“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”

I vote for following Rilke's advice.

I vote for following Rilke’s advice.

“To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation. For that reason young people – who are beginners in everything – cannot yet love; they do not know how to love. They must learn it. With their whole being, with all the strengths enveloping their lonely, disquieted heart, they must learn to love – even while their heartbeat is quickening.”

“We must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance.”

3. In the Body of the World – Eve Ensler. I listened to a podcast interview with Ensler – probably best known as the creator of the Vagina Monologues – about her diagnosis with cancer and some of the other philanthropic work she’s done, particularly in the Congo. This book is a memoir, and I really enjoyed the way it’s written. The chapters are mostly short, sometimes little lists, and it’s a mix of her struggle with cancer and parts of her past and how they are linked. My only complaint is that sometimes she mentions things from her past, and if you haven’t read any of her other works (I haven’t) then it’s just a snippet, and not an actual explanation or expansion on that topic. I was also relieved to some extent that her book didn’t talk too extensively about the violence in the Congo – though she does touch on that – because I was not in the frame of mind to read graphically about it, and it would’ve been too much for me.

4. Mother, Mother – Koren Zailckas. This is the book I struggled to get through this month. It’s not a bad book, but I went in with the expectation that Zailckas’ writing would flow like it did in Smashed. Smashed is Zailckas’ beautifully written first book, a memoir about her binge drinking. Mother, Mother is her first non-fiction book (she has another memoir), and it took me a little while to get into it. It reads more like a screenplay to me – I could definitely see it being turned into a movie – because the plot is suspenseful, but the writing is a bit bland. It’s not bad, but it’s not a book that draws you in and doesn’t let you leave. It follows a family and what happens to the two oldest children and it’s a bit of a psychological thriller. To her credit, I couldn’t exactly figure out what was happening. I’d still recommend it if you’re looking for an easy read.

5. Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed. I read this book last summer for the first time, and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. It’s a collection of Strayed’s advice column that she originally wrote anonymously as a woman named Sugar on a website. Strayed is amazing. She has a way of weaving stories about things that happened to herself or someone she knew to answer people’s questions, and they are usually dark stories, the worst parts of human experience. Despite that darkness, she has a way of providing uplifting advice or guidance, a way of stepping into the light. She doesn’t bullshit. She seems to be the most empathetic, rational human being, and she has a tendency to address the people who write in as sweet peas. I actually bought this book, and it’s the first book I’ve bought in a few years. It’s THAT good. I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch recently, and re-reading this book has made me feel infinitely better, like there is no struggle that can’t be fixed with a bit of hard work, smarts, and love.

As a bit of a preview of what’s coming in April, I’ve been scanning The Complete Works of Maya Angelou. I didn’t even realize at first that April is National Poetry Month, but my craving for poetry will coincide nicely with that.

Have you read any of these books? What are you reading this month? What would you recommend?

Detours

I had a overly full week of work, a huge and delicious lunch date with one of my best friends in from out of town, a failed road trip, and lots of books to occupy my time this past week. How was everyone’s week?

I am all swoon-y over this article on Yes and Yes – This is What Personal Growth Feels Like. I know this feeling well from getting stuck in a city I still don’t know the name of, taking chilly half-showers in a grimy tub, and hoping my squat wouldn’t burn down while watching flames periodically peek out from one of the outlets in my kitchen. Oh, life abroad.

“Those challenges? Once you make it through alive (which, if you’re reading this, you have) that’s what adventure feels like. This is where you become a smarter, stronger, kinder person. Those experiences are what ‘Tell me again!’ stories are made of.  These are the spaces where we grow.”

The Economist has a nifty little article on urban explorers who climb some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers illegally and without any safety ropes or harnesses. I doubt I would ever try anything like this, but the resulting photos are gorgeous and dizzying.

“Beyond the adrenaline rush that accompanies dodging security and the real physical danger involved, urban explorers describe a feeling of supreme freedom during walks. In urban centres, where governments track the online activities of citizens and CCTV cameras survey streets, theirs are acts of defiance.”

Representing some Ohio love, Kerry Ann over at Welcome to Ladyville wrote a great post about how to slowly, gradually, un-sexily get a writing day job. As someone still in this process myself, it was so refreshing and heartening to read about people who have had the same struggles and found a way to make it work.

“I knew I wanted a writing job, but I didn’t know how I could do that or what I should be looking for. I hadn’t been in college for a few years and I had no connections and no one around to give me any advice.

So I just started writing. I decided I would get writing credits in any way possible. I would say yes to EVERY writing opportunity, even the ones that sounded dumb.”

This is a great and heartbreaking piece of writing.

In case all of that isn’t enough to read, here’s another excellent piece of reporting from The New York Times on workers with disabilities being exploited and neglected: The Boys in the Bunkhouse.

February 2014 Books

February was a slow reading month for me. I barely managed to get through three books, but the ones I did read were well worth it.

1. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis. This book had the Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it, and I’d seen it hanging around at the library so I picked it up one day. It’s really good, in a subtle yet substantial way. The story revolves around Hattie and her life as an African American, mother, and woman, and is told from the perspectives of her children at different times throughout her life. The stories are so well written I found myself wishing I could read how each of her children’s full lives unfold.

2. The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd. I loved this book. It takes places in the 1800s and flip flops between Sarah Grimké, a well to do white woman, and Handful/Hetty, one of the slaves in the Grimké’s household, from their childhoods to their adult lives. The story is a fictionalized account based on Sarah Grimké’s real life as a abolitionist and feminist – two radical ideas at the time.

“He assumed I’d outgrown my rebellions and become like the rest of them – a guardian of slavery. I couldn’t fault him for it. When was the last time any of them had heard me speak out against the peculiar institution? I’d been wandering about in the enchantments of romance, afflicted with the worst female curse on earth, the need to mold myself to expectations.”

3. How Writer’s Work – Ralph Fletcher. This one is short and easy to read because it was written for kids and young adults, but the advice Fletcher offers is still relevant to writers of any age. The part that really connected for me was finding your own habit of writing – what type of environment works, what time of day, pencil vs. computer, etc.

“Walk into a restaurant and your stomach starts to growl. Walk into a gym and your body prepares to sweat while you exercise. Our brains are conditioned to know what to expect in particular spaces.

The same thing is true about writing.”

I also made it partway through J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy this month before I decided to give it up and move onto something else. If I wasn’t engaged by the 180th page, I really couldn’t see the point in continuing until the 400th.

What books have you been reading?

Ted Talk #2

I’m not sure what exactly Sir Ken Robinson does as a Creativity Expert but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s also a part-time stand-up comedian. His talk How Schools Kill Creativity is hilarious and insightful, and has resulted in one of my new favorite quotes, “If [children] don’t know, they’ll have a go.”

“All kids have tremendous talents ⎯ and we squander them pretty ruthlessly.” -Sir Ken Robinson