I kept track of all the books I read again this year. It's a much shorter list than last year's (44 as opposed to last year's 54), in part because I read some pretty long books. Although there's still time to finish more reading before the end of the year--my grading and travel schedules pretty much assure that won't happen. Also, I'm in the middle of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a book I'm enjoying but one that I don't anticipate finishing any time soon.
The books that I repeatedly recommend to others tend to be non-fiction; one of this year's favorites in that genre was Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a fascinating portrayal of the American ambassador to Germany and his daughter's simultaneous (but very different) experiences before World War II. It's such an interesting exploration of how difficult it is to see what's happening in the present clearly. Our ability to assess wrong doing and figure out appropriate responses can be obstructed by passion, love, fear, dishonesty--which makes clear thinking during stressful times all the more heroic.
Another book I loved was Cheryl Strayed's Wild (count me among many others). Strayed unflinchingly describes her own foolishness, yet a dogged persistence to complete a seemingly impossible journey. Her ability to rethink who she is and reset her course in life are remarkable.
The last two books I'll write about are ones that I assigned to my graduate students in an American Indian literature seminar. I'd read them both before, but re-reading them gave me an even deeper appreciation for these writers. Louise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a powerful examination of secrets and the ways that who we are can't be defined by gender or biology. Her cross-dressing main character, a woman who lives most of her life as a Catholic priest, tries to document the seeming performance of miracles by a troubled nun.
The other book I studied with my classes was LeAnne Howe's Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story. To be honest, I don't think I really understood the book the first time I read it--I just tried to figure out how the permeable boundary between past and present worked in the fragmented narrative. This time, however, the book made me think about how language can be powerful enough to change how we see the past, allowing us to transform and even redeem ourselves.
Here are the books that have stayed with me this year (in the order I read them):
- Scott Lyons, X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent.
- Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts.
- James Welch, Fools Crow.
- Lauren Groff, Arcadia.
- Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
- Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.
- Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.
- Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain.
- Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
- Kate Atkinson, Case Histories.
- LeAnne Howe, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story.
I am endlessly fascinated with dystopian visions of the future. I just finished reading two novels by Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake and its sequel The Year of the Flood. Of course, Atwood is a master of this genre, authoring such dark novels as The Handmaid's Tale (which I couldn't put down when I read it "for fun" while in graduate school). In these novels, I find visions of the future that seem possible to me--the disintegration of society, the ubiquitous and malevolent influence of media and consumer culture, the "dumbward" spiral of humanity. Others may get hooked on futuristic visions of war and Battlestar Galactica style-conflict, but me? Give me the hopelessness of a broken world in which humanity struggles blindly to retain and revive its ideals.
In trying to identify what it is about these texts that so enthralls me, I've come up with a couple of things. First, I think that these texts reveal characters in unimaginable situations who must make difficult decisions--and that these decisions often reveal something about the self that these characters never knew before. Do any of us really know what we'd do if we were starving with no end in sight? Would we share what we have with others? Would we hide ourselves from view, selfishly eating whatever food we did find? I'd like to think that I'd be generous--to be honest, I'd like to think that I could continue to desire life even in such difficult situations. But do I really know how I'd respond? Do I really know what I'm capable of?
I think I'm also fascinated by these texts because they illustrate the classic good vs. evil conflict. In some cases, that conflict is internal, but in other versions, a pocket of heroic people fight whatever evil power has taken over the world (be it the dark majority, a lethal virus, evil institutions, etc.). In these dystopias, there is still hope--and the two sides are finely delineated. I'm drawn to the clarity of these visions--it's easy to root against zombies because they don't have consciousness, they aren't "human."
I don't want life to be this hard, but sometimes I do wish that it were this clear.
Summer has not always been kind to me. I've sometimes worked too hard or experienced the depths of grief because of a loss. I've wasted the summer away sleeping or not doing much that was very meaningful. Long stretches of unstructured time make me nervous. I know that I'm not good at self-discipline and I feel guilt about not being productive. I have issues with summer.
However, something surprising happened this year: I was able to reconnect in a really deep way with my writing self. I was able to write through the insecurities I developed as I wrote my dissertation and I think . . . I hope . . . I've developed a new relationship with writing. I have two new projects that I want to work on--and much of that desire comes from completing a writing commitment successfully. I remembered something that I hadn't felt for awhile, that writing makes me feel alive and conscious of my cognitive and analytical abilities in ways that bring me deep satisfaction.
My kitchen range had to go. The oven was caked with a black slick that wouldn't dissolve, no matter how much I tried to clean it off. The warming oven didn't work, and I could only use two of the burners. Although it had the charm of a much older range, it just wasn't working properly.
It seemed like a perfect space for a new gas range, but I learned that it would have cost a whole lot of money to pipe gas to the right place . . . so I went with a big electric range.
It's so pretty I'm afraid to use it.
Yesterday on Twitter, someone tweeted something that I've been thinking about all day: "conversation is not a competition." I'm probably overly conscious of the ways that we can monopolize a conversation, transforming a conversation into a monologue. This comment, though, made me think about the important role of listening in conversations, especially since it was made within the context of thinking about the value of the "pause." Lately, I've been wondering if I really listen or if I just "perform" listening by nodding my head, making eye contact, and saying "uh huh" periodically to indicate my attention. Too often, I think, we use the time that someone is talking to formulate what we want to say instead of really listening.
Today in a group discussion I decided to try to focus on listening. Here's what happened: the conversation moved in directions I didn't anticipate. There were a lot of things I was thinking that didn't make it into the conversation since other people changed the course away from the topic that I was still considering. At the end of the conversation, there was a lot that I wanted to write about.
So I'm left with this question. Do I engage in conversation to share my ideas or do I value more the opportunity to learn from others?
One could argue that I need to practice the ability to listen and formulate my response more quickly (in those brief instances between comments). One could also argue that it might be a good thing to continue thinking about ideas after a conversation is over. Perhaps developing good listening skills could lead to better/more writing and a deeper understanding of a topic. I'm going to keep pondering this as I practice listening.
I've been known to be critical of those who try (unsuccessfully) to defy the aging process. I've been judgmental, yes, I think that's the right word, judgmental of people who get botox injections or plastic surgery . . . or elderly women who wear clothing that conflicts with their age or older men who date younger women in a transparent attempt to feel youthful. It's been easy to be so critical, since I've looked rather younger than my age (thanks for your good genes, Mom and Dad). I was at a party the other night, and someone kept saying to me "You don't have any wrinkles" in an accusatory manner. I pointed out my crow's feet, but that didn't seem to matter.
Still, over the last few months, I've seen my body start to change. In spite of my intense bouts on the treadmill and the weight lifting, I'm gaining weight. Even though I've started taking B Vitamins intravenously (kidding), my hair has started to thin. The other night while waiting to drift off to sleep, I came to the happy realization that if I lose my hair, I can start wearing wigs . . . beautiful wigs with thick hair in whatever color I choose.
I live in a society where older women can get overlooked. I see myself doing that sometimes, much to my dismay. At the same time, I have older female friends who are gutsy, independent, and absolutely vibrant. As of this moment, I'm committing to defy not aging but diminishment.
I plan to be a loud, smart-a**, feisty old woman who travels the world and doesn't care what anyone else thinks of me. I'll study new languages and become an expert in all kinds of unexpected things. I'll wear patterns with patterns and doc martens that look like motorcycle boots. I'll have a different wig for different moods, and I'll keep listening to alt-rock until the day I die.
When that day comes, cremate me in my docs and scatter my ashes in the wind. A box won't be able to contain the energy I release.
During the 2009-10 school year, I decided to try something new every month. I really enjoyed the attitude that created in me, the idea that I could stretch, push, expand my horizons and that there were still many things in life that I wanted to try.
But over the last few months, I've floundered a bit. I've been overwhelmingly busy now that I'm coordinating the English credential program again. That job creates a great deal of stress in my life, I guess because I want to make sure that everything runs smoothly and that our English Education majors feel like they get good advising. I think I've still been trying new things, but I haven't been feeling the same expansion that I felt last year.
So yesterday, I realized what my next year should focus on. It's actually quite similar to the "try new things" year, only this time, I really want to challenge the negative thinking that holds me back from creating new structures and new ways of doing things. I'm going to challenge myself to think "why not" instead of caving to the idea that things are unchangeable. A lot of this will have to do with my job. For example, I plan to create podcasts related to advising. I'm going to invite learning directors at schools to attend our new master teacher meeting, as a way to try to help them understand what our vision for student teaching is. I plan to regularly force myself to think about other ways things could be done.
Although much of the work I want to do over the next year is related to my job, I hope that attitude will spill over to my every day life as well. I want to re-think how I relate to the world and try to transform how I live every day.
This feels really ambitious; I know that real change takes time. I'm thinking this endeavor won't result in the easy-to-measure listing of the one new thing I did each month. Still, I'm excited to see what effect this has on my life. Great or small, it doesn't really matter to me, as long as I'm challenging myself to be open to new structures and ways of doing things.
I found out this morning that a dear friend, Manuel Sousa, just passed away. He lived in Setubal, Portugal, had a wife and two daughters, and was just 44 years old. I met Manuel when he was 17 and I was 21. He was a beautiful young man who had such deep sincerity, warmth, and joie de vivre. What a loss.
Yesterday, I told my therapist that I felt a vague dissatisfaction with my life right now, that I felt a little bored. This isn't something I've been feeling a long time--it was more a product of working hard for the last few weeks and suddenly having a three day weekend during which I'd still need to work. My "vague dissatisfaction" lasted all of a few hours, to be honest. Still, my comment led to a revealing discussion.
My therapist asked me what associations I have with the word "stability." My sincere and heartfelt answer? "Routine. Boredom." She and I have talked about how my family moved a lot when I was young, and yesterday she insightfully asked if my parents had treated these moves as sources of excitement and opportunity. I think they did--at least, I don't remember negative feelings about moving (until the move that occurred when I was 13 . . . tough age to move). My parents taught me to think of change as an adventure, a lesson that I deeply appreciate--at the same time, they provided me with stability during the process of making new lives in Utah, California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and then Utah again.
As an adult, I have both sought and rejected stability. I have moved a lot. i have wilted when my life felt mundane. I've felt unwilling to call anywhere home, even long-time residences. I've fallen in love with men who weren't grown ups or who didn't love me back. I've beaten myself up for not having a sense of stability even while I made decisions that led to that feeling. I don't mean for this list to suggest that I regret all of this. I've loved exploring the world, I've gotten a lot out of my failed relationships--and the more negative experiences have led me to where I am right now, a place I quite like.
My therapist suggested that I look at stability in a new way . . . it's my stable life here that allows me to take off and travel, to explore the world and my psyche, to find rest even when I feel restless. She's right. Other jobs, other cities, other responsibilities might limit or constrain my curiosity. Here, I'm financially secure, I have a job that allows me to follow my passions, and I have amazing friends. The people I love here let me go . . . but they also embrace me when I return.
I'm still not crazy about routine . . . but I think I'm on board with developing more positive associations with stability.