looking back at moving forward, with heart

New Year’s Eve fireworks at my friends’ house in Nashua.

My word for 2017 was forward. It was my theme for the year–the concept I wanted to keep in the center of my life and mind. In light of my last post, it may seem that I stalled on that concept, but I disagree.

The places I was forced to stand still (or even, in a few instances, back up) were all areas out of my control.

The things I did have control over moved forward. I picked up several freelance projects and became a working writer. I read and blogged about over thirteen books featuring diverse characters. (Even though I had secretly hoped to hit 26 books, my stated goal was nevertheless met, so I consider it a success even though things fell apart in August due to some of those out-of-my-control bits.) Most important to me, I finished writing and revising a novel, wrote and polished the query and synopsis, and drew up a list of over 70 agents that I want to query.

And something came unstuck in me after my last post, as well. I finished Tricker’s Queen, and even zoomed through Beauty Queens and started When Dimple Met Rishi. I’m not certain exactly how I will approach book recommendations on this blog in the future, but I’m reading again, which is a tremendous relief. I’m still moving forward.

Though I intend to maintain momentum, the word I’ve chosen for 2018 is heart. In deciding what to focus on this year, I kept going back to the areas where I was forced to stall, last year. I decided to reclaim what I could. So, this year, when choosing the people and activities I spend my time with, I will concentrate on those that I treasure and that nurture the heart of who I am. What’s essential?

Among those things are my husband, kids, and dog; the new book I’m writing; and some friends I’ve fallen out of touch with as I pulled inward over the past two years. There’s more, of course. But that’s the heart of it.

at the bottom of the canyon

My brother Daniel died at the end of May. He’d been sick for a few years, and when someone is sick and dying, you get into the habit of living at the edge of the precipice. You know the cliff will collapse eventually, but you make your home there anyway. Where else is there to go?

And grief is a strange beast. Even when you know it’s coming—when the cliff has given way, plummeting you into the canyon below, and you can hear the beast’s pounding footsteps, the ground shaking as it approaches—you can never tell what it will look like or how it will impact your life. You find out what it looks like when it finally emerges from the fog and crushes what’s left of your house.

Well, one thing that’s happened for me is, I’ve stopped reading. I mean—I’m still reading for work. There’s a stack of 70 books on my desk, and I’m pushing through them. But I’m not reading for fun, anymore.

First, after Daniel’s death, I thought I could just keep doing the blog project. I thought, it will be a release (whatever the hell that means). I hung on for about two months before I decided maybe what I really needed was to read something I’d already read a few times. Something that would feel like an old blanket. I chose Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. After I read these, I thought, I’ll return to learning. I got through the first book fairly quickly. But I’ve been reading the sequel for over three months. I get stuck on one page for a day or two at a time…and this is a story I love.

Ordinarily, I have no trouble putting down a book I’m just not into, even if I’ve loved it before. But there’s something in my head that refuses to walk away this time. It’s as if I don’t finish reading this book, I’ll never finish reading another again.

And although I’m not reading, I’m still buying books. I’ve bought Turtles All The Way Down, The Hate U Give, And Then There Were Four, and Beauty Queens, and they’re all sitting there, begging for my love. I think they’re a promise to myself that I’ll come out the other end of my grief, still loving reading.

But right now I’m afraid to start them, because what if I can’t get through more than a page a week? Will it kill these new books for me? Books have always been the things I turned to when I needed comfort or a retreat. Why are they so hard to connect with, this time? What if I open them, start reading, then close them and leave them crying on my reading table?

I want to curl up in the ratty old club chair in my office and spend an entire day—an entire week—reading for fun. Ignore everything around me, even the growling of my stomach and the kink in my neck I get from reading in my ratty old chair. Read an entire book, start to finish, in one day. Say (when it’s time for dinner), “hang on, lemme finish this paragraph…” and then read until the end of the chapter instead. Bring the book downstairs with me so I can read while I eat. I want this. I need this. I miss this.


Beautiful Books: Pictures of Hollis Woods

Pictures of Hollis Woods
by Patricia Reilly Giff

From the back cover: Hollis Woods
is the place where a baby was abandoned
is the baby’s name
is an artist
is now a twelve-year-old girl who’s been in as many foster homes she can hardly remember them all. Hollis Woods is a mountain of trouble. She runs away even from the Regans, the one family who offers her a home.

When Hollis is sent to Josie, an elderly artist who is quirky and affectionate, she wants to stay. But Josie is growing more forgetful every day. If Social Services finds out, they’ll take Hollis away and move Josie into a home. Well, Hollis Woods won’t let anyone separate them. She’s escaped the system before; this time, she’s taking Josie with her.

Still, even as she plans her future with Josie, Hollis dreams of the past summer with the Regans, fixing each special moment of her days with them in pictures she’ll never forget.

Like Hollis, I sometimes want to run away. When faced with something uncomfortable, it’s easier to deny its existence and push it away. Facing, embracing, and struggling through it can feel like the end of everything we know. Here’s the thing about people, though: even when what we know is awful, and our situation isn’t working to our advantage, we don’t want to let it go. We’re afraid to risk reaching for something better, because what if the thing we end up with is even worse?

Hollis distances herself from her foster parents and the agency social workers out of self-preservation; she calls them not by name but by descriptors: the mustard woman, the stucco woman, the lemon lady…why get attached to someone who doesn’t want you, anyway? But the Regans and Josie are different; Hollis consistently refers to Josie and the Regans by name. There is Steven, his mom Izzy (Mrs. Regan), and Mr. Regan, affectionately dubbed “Old Man” by Hollis. You could argue that “Old Man” is a descriptor, just like “the mustard woman” but by dropping “the”, Hollis makes it a name.

It’s a sign she’s ready to risk opening her heart.

Emotional growth happens in fits and starts, though, so it’s not surprising that when Hollis and Steven make a huge mistake, Hollis reacts by running away again. After all, she’s convinced they couldn’t possibly want her once they find out how much trouble she really is. That’s been her whole life so far. But before she runs from the Regan’s, Steven tells her she doesn’t know anything about how families work. He’s not wrong, and Hollis knows it.

Steven’s comment sticks with Hollis, growing in the back corners of her mind as she tries to build a family with Josie. Her early understanding of his comment contributes to her decision to run away with Josie rather than let the agency find out about Josie’s failing memory—she’s trying to build a family and beginning to realize that families are worth the struggle.

Her memories of the summer spent with the Regans lead Hollis to make risky choices—choices that will surely force her to face her fears, because once she claims Josie as her responsibility, she can no longer run from other responsibilities. And like all of us—even those of us who grew up with families all along—Hollis discovers that families are more than the luck of the draw. Families are the people we gather to us and hold in our hearts, again and again, until we can’t imagine our days without them.

Beautiful Books: One Came Home

One Came Home
by Amy Timberlake

From the back cover: When the sheriff rides into town with an unidentifiable body–wearing a blue-green ball gown–everyone assumes it’s Georgie Burkhardt’s older sister, Agatha. After all, it is Agatha’s dress. 

But Georgie refuses to believe the facts that are laid down (and coffined) before her. She will track every last clue and shred of evidence to find her sister and bring her home.

Sometimes, we just know we’re right, even when all the evidence arranged in front of us and accepted by everyone we know says we’re wrong. And to be fair, it’s not that Georgie’s family doesn’t believe her or have faith in her undertaking…it’s that they can’t.

Denial is a powerful force. One of the five stages of grief (the other four are anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), denial shelters us from the most painful truths our psyches must face. Sometimes, though—when we get stuck in denial—that shelter becomes a hindrance, keeping us from moving forward through a healthy grieving process.

It is denial that leads Georgie to run away from home in search of the sister everyone else believes is dead. Likewise, denial prompts her family to secretly support that effort—not because they, too, believe Agatha is still alive—but because they need to prove she isn’t.

Georgie lives in a time and a place where she is realistically able to take matters into her own hands. If she lived in the city, or back east, the trappings of her life and the society around her would have made for a very different story, but life on the prairies of Wisconsin in 1871 affords thirteen-year-olds a freedom no longer common.

The ironic thing about Georgie’s behavior in One Came Home is that, in spite of her refusal to accept Agatha’s death, Georgie isn’t acting irrationally. She has evidence to support her position: her knowledge of the love triangle between Agatha, Billy McCabe, and Mr. Olmstead; a deep understanding of Agatha’s personality and dream of attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison; and above all, a certainty that something doesn’t add up.

Georgie’s journey to bring her sister home takes her to perplexing places and teaches her rough lessons. She must decide when to meet a challenge head-on, and when to run. And by the time her story is done, Georgie and her family are not the only ones who must face the truth that we cannot control those we love any more than they can control us.

What we can do, however, is learn what drives us and hold fast to our own truth.

Beautiful Books: Black Radishes

Black Radishes
by Susan Lynn Meyer

From the back cover: Gustave doesn’t want to move from the exciting city to the boring countryside, far from his cousin Jean-Paul and his best friend, the mischievous Marcel. But he has no choice. It is March of 1940, and Paris is not a safe place for Jews.

 When Paris is captured by the Nazis, Gustave knows that Marcel, Jean-Paul, and their families must make it out of the occupied zone. And when he learns that his new friend Nicole works for the French Resistance, he comes up with a plan that just might work. But going into Occupied France is a risky thing to do when you are Jewish. And coming back alive? That is nearly impossible.

The thing that strikes me the most about Gustave’s story is that sometimes it’s impossible to know if you’re making the right decision at the right time. If Gustave’s family leaves Paris too soon, will they regret losing everything if their fears do not come to pass? If they wait too long, will they make it to safety at all? And once the Germans invade France: should they stay in the countryside and wait for visas to America…or flee now to Spain?

But a decision is necessary, because to not decide (while technically a decision, itself) will certainly bring nothing good. Making a single decision about how you will react to something can make an uncontrollable situation slightly less terrifying.

Once in the countryside, their situation is in some ways better, in other ways worse. At least in Paris, surrounded by family and friends, they didn’t have to worship in secret. But in the countryside, they are closer to farms and better able to trade the few assets they were able to bring with them for food.

Like Gustave–who wrestles with how to hide his religion and the best way to react when it comes up at school–I’ve wrestled with religion, too. My circumstances are laughable compared to what Gustave must endure, but I do know what it’s like to feel it would be best to not express my beliefs openly. My life, however, would never be in danger if I shared my beliefs with someone untrustworthy.

As Gustave grows up on the verge of in-hiding, he learns that some problems have no right answer: like figuring out how to react when someone asks why he’s never in church, Gustave learns that sometimes we just have to make a choice, stand by it, and hope for the best. But other problems are easier to quantify: what is the morally right choice? What can we live with? And for what would we never forgive ourselves?

It can be frightening to stand up for what’s right. I once read a self-help book called Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, and that’s exactly what Gustave learns. He makes choices he’d rather not have to make, choices that scare him–but he pushes through and comes out the other end. Is he forever changed?

Of course.

But it’s change he accepted, change he doesn’t regret, and that’s the best kind of change there is.