I always start out with 45 or so books, but then I get excited about new books and add them to the list and ignore old ones on the list. Anyway, books I read last year (I go by birth years).
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich
- The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
- Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
- The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
- The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
- The Assembler of Parts
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
- A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
- This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
- Drown by Junot Diaz
- The Exploded Room
- A Good Man is Hard to Find and other Stories by Flannery O’Conner
- Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno
- One More Thing by BJ Novak
- Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
- Small Fierce Things by LJ Moore
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
- The Emperor of All Maladies
- Means to an End by Doug Green
- Bossypants by Tina Fey
- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me and Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling
- Let’s Pretend this Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Craig Arnold (Shells, Made Flesh) Lucille Lang Day (Infinities) Donald Hall (The Painted Room) lot s of random stuff by Jeffrey McDaniel and others Tell Me Again
This year’s reading list (many rolled over from last year):
- The Immortals
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
- The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
- Garden of Eden by Hemingway
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- The Island of the Day Before
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
- The God of Small Things
- The Stranger by Camus
- All the Pretty Horses
- The Beautiful and Damned (in progress)
- The Yellow Birds
- The Things They Carried
- Matchless by Joyce Carol Oates
- The Lover by Marguerite Duras
- Sacre Bleu
- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
- The Round House By Louise Erdrich (and everything else by her)
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
- The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
- On Such a Full Sea by Chang Rae Lee
- The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
- The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
- Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
- Charming Billy by Alice McDermott
Fiction (Short stories)
- Eleven Kinds of Loneliness
- Dear Life by Alice Munro
- The Tiny Book of Tiny Short-Stories (JGL)
- Bark by Lorrie Moore
- Tenth of December by George Saunders
- Science is Culture
- Cosmos by Carl Sagan
- The Where, the Why, and the How
- This Will Make You Smarter
- Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
- My Heart is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart
- Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield
- Rilke (Selected Poems)
- Jack Gilbert (Collected Poems)
- Anis Mojgani
- Charles Bukowski
- Andrea Gibson
- Buddy Wakefield
- Leonard Cohen (The Book of Longing)
23 before 24
Last year’s pseudo-accomplishments:
- tried bikram yoga (and liked the yoga if not the studio)
- published 7 more poems, one of which got picked for a Best-of Anthology, 3 of which resulted from the writing conference I attended a long time ago
- finished a short story
- published 2 essays (in the Huffington Post and the Atlantic)
- took another international trip (to China, which only sort of counts)
- visited a friend in a new city (Austin)
- went to Napa
- went to Outsidelands finally
- hiked around Sutro Baths
- learned to play a new song on the piano (and promptly forgot it)
Oh, and I got a bike! Admittedly a super hipster-y bike. Not on my list, but super exciting.
(Image credit: publicbikes.com)
Newly 23-year-old me, you know the drill.
- get paid to publish a piece of writing in a new (to me) publication
- complete and submit a short story to a journal
- take an international trip (realistic options: Hong Kong, Australia/New Zealand, Spain/Europe, Argentina)
- visit a new city (possible options: Portland, New Orleans, Chicago, Albuquerque, San Juan)
- try rock-climbing again
- do a real pull-up
- run a half marathon
- bike to the beach and/or Sausalito and/or some other scenic place (really, it’s just “and,” not “or,” but I figured I shouldn’t be overly ambitious yet)
- learn a new song on the ocarina and/or piano
- sing karaoke in front of strangers
- try paintball
- visit a goat farm
- tour Alcatraz
- check out Audium
- check out First Friday in North Beach (again, now that I won’t get horribly lost)
- hike to cave paintings (?!) and/or waterfalls
- attend a Moth Storyslam
- find the secret rooftop terrace
- check out the new Exploratorium
- learn to (kite)surf
- complete a significant volunteer project (Science in the Classroom)
- take a trapeze class (pole dancing is also an option, because that would be just about the most awesome blog post)
- take a ride in a hot air balloon
musings on gladness, growth, and Jack Gilbert (because all birthdays must be acknowledged with self-indulgent navel-gazing)
"We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.”
—Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense”
I love Jack Gilbert for his grand exuberance. This isn’t my favorite Jack Gilbert poem, but I particularly appreciate this exerpt. The whole premise of the poem, which I think is best summed up in these lines, is that the world is full of terrible cruelty and sadness—every day, every news source proves that this is so—but somehow, it is also full of beauty. Somehow, there is laughter “between the suffering [we] have known…and the awfulness” that is to come.
As I start creeping towards my mid-20s and learn to be a functional human being in this strange new world, this is my proudest accomplishment—learning to finally risk delight.
I’ve always known that there are no guarantees in life. I never stayed in one place very long as a kid, and the kids I initially went to school with were often volatile and cruel—that was just the environment we were in. And then, just as things were looking up mid-adolescence, my mother—my primary/only early source of love and stability—got sick. For a long time afterwards, all I knew was the endless cycle of hope and disappointment and grief as she entered and exited remission and shrank into a shell of herself, and I still struggle to remember the bits of happiness that came before.
My (totally natural) reaction was to reject happiness and hope and anything that resembled stability, because I was smarter than that. (What teenager isn’t?) I knew it couldn’t last, and I told myself I didn’t want any of that nonsense anyway. But by accepting a harsher reality that I didn’t really want, I wasn’t being true to myself or to anyone. As a result, I struggled between aloofness and almost-painful emotional intensity, pointedly not feeling anything in public and privately feeling so much that the only rational thing to do was to sprint down the street at 2am until I coughed up the taste of rust. I think I’ve finally reached a happy middle ground that doesn’t make people think I’m bipolar.
A friend said last week that I [finally] seemed steady on my feet, compared to a lot of other people and especially compared to slightly-younger-me. And I think she’s right—I feel steady now, and it’s nice.
The past few years have been a time of tremendous (forced) growth. In that time, I came to realize that yes, there really are no guarantees in life, not when other people are involved (which is always). Sometimes, you don’t get a grant you were expecting or you grow apart from someone or people you love die. But you love people anyway, and you love life anyway—for them and for the singular moment, and not for what they could someday be to you. You do it one day at a time because “someday” might not come around. (This is also what we were supposed to learn from Rent.)
This is how I’m interpreting Jack Gilbert when he says that “we must risk delight”—we have to find something beautiful within our transience, our uncertainty, because life is too painful otherwise.
This is relatively new for me, this reckless knowing—knowing that come summer, the San Francisco fog will roll in and never seem to disappear and being genuinely okay with it. Knowing with even greater certainty that autumn will come to dispel the grey haze. Appreciating with all my heart the lovely bits of light in between.
I think this is a recklessness I’m finally okay with. This is something that used to embarrass me about my mother—her unabashed exuberance, her natural intimacy with everyone. It’s funny that I’m starting to see a lot of that in myself; I wish I’d appreciated it more in her. I like to imagine that in an alternate universe, my mother can see that I’m finally growing into myself, and I am so glad.
P.S. Apparently yesterday was also International Happiness Day? Appropriate.
three years later: musings on grief and literature
It’s funny how things change. When you’re waiting for it, it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever come. But it does come, always, so slowly you don’t notice it creeping up on you. Then all of a sudden, you do notice. You stare it straight in the face, and it knocks the wind out of you.
Can I be any more vague?
Tomorrow, it’ll have been three years since my mother died. It’s strange to see just how much (and in some cases how little) things have changed.
I recently received a couple copies of the anthology that came out of the writing conference I attended in 2012. A year after my mother died, I was finally ready to deal with my grief and to write about her. And to start moving on, if you want to call it that. Now I look back at that time, those first agonizing years, marked by the occasional tear-stained journal entry or pained poem, and I am grateful to have finally moved past them. If you had asked me a year ago, I never would have thought it possible.
Those years, in my efforts to feel less alone, I have read about so many tragedies.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Goldfinch, and what I found most striking was how much Theo’s life hinged on the loss of his beloved mother during adolescence. The way he approached his life afterwards seemed so unbelievable at times—the copious drug use and irrational guilt and obsessive attachment to Pippa, etc. And yet I believed it all because I could identify so well with him.
Similarly, in The Painted Drum, Faye never moved past a family tragedy that occurred in childhood. Now a middle-aged woman, she lives with her elderly mother, has commitment/control issues with her lover, and expresses a childish wish to never have to live without her mother. That, too, is a sentiment I once identified with.
I am so grateful for the sense of solidarity provided by these stories. And at the same time, I am so sad that there exists such a deep well of grief from which stories like these are constantly drawn.
I know someone else whose mother died when he was in college, and he once said that he didn’t want to be defined by his mother’s death. He meant (I think) that he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him and think of him as That Tragic Kid. When he said that, I felt ashamed, because I felt that I have been too much defined by my own mother’s death. I felt that I wasn’t trying hard enough to press forward or hide my sorrows.
But as these books remind me, there is no way you can not be defined by something that affects you so much. It’s just a matter of how you let it define you. And of course, it affects some people more and/or differently than others, depending on the quality of the relationship to the lost loved one, the support networks of the survivors, the life stage of the survivors at the time of loss, etc. There is nothing wrong with grieving at a different pace.
For various reasons, I suspect it took me a little longer than normal to get to a point of normalcy. Even now, there are still times when I’ll wake up from a dream to a damp pillow beneath my cheeks. There are still times when I wish I could share some aspect of my life with her—a new dish I’ve learned how to make, a quirky little shop on the corner, a photo or publication or some other accomplishment I am proud of. There are times when I see something she would have liked, and I am filled with such a bottomless black grief at the thought that I never gave it to her and now will never have another opportunity.
But more and more often now, I can think of the happier moments without feeling unbearably sad that they’re over. I no longer feel the urgent need to tell people that I’ve lost her, in hopes that someone will tell me they understand. I don’t have to tell my sad sob story to connect with people. My mother is no longer at the center of every relationship I have, and I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.
I wish she could be here to see how much I’ve grown. But I will always remember one of the last things she said to me—she said that she didn’t know how I’d gotten so cynical, and she just wanted me to be happy. And it was a revelation, because I always thought as a kid that being cynical meant I was being smart about the world. I was tragic for the sake of being tragic, even before I had any reason for it. Now, finally, I’m not afraid to admit that I want to be happy too, and for the most part, I am.
New Year’s Resolutions
(Photo: leaving Red Rock at sunset 12/28/13)
I have an unabashed love of resolution lists. New Year’s resolutions, birthday resolutions, random motivated week resolutions, you name it. (Also, see sidebar with a bazillion such lists.)
So here’s the list for 2014.
1. Don’t obsess so much about being healthy. I know, I know, this seems like the exact opposite of what we should resolve to do. But obsessing actually isn’t healthy. Instead of losing sleep to go to the gym or counting calories and ounces on the scale or feeling guilty about tiny “slip-ups” or otherwise pushing yourself beyond your body’s limits, buy more fresh produce, cook your own meals, and work out when you want to (unless it’s never, in which case, you should push yourself a little). Healthy habits should make you feel good.
The actionable items that come out of this:
a. Go grocery shopping and cook at least once a week.
b. Eat out (aka go to the cafeteria) less than 5 times per month.
c. Sleep at least 7 hours a night, even if that means a shorter workout or going to lab a little late
d. Go to sleep by midnight.
e. Drink less.
2. Stop feeling guilty about me-time. I get cranky and irritable and socially burnt out if I don’t spend enough time by myself, and nobody needs to see that. There’s no need to be productive and sociable at all times. Alone time is just as productive.
3. Be more fearless(ly vulnerable). In spite of all my aspirational preaching about being kind and all that, I’m prickly. Like a hedgehog. And in retrospect, I have been such an asshole sometimes because it’s terrifying and risky to be sincere in an insincere world. What if people think you’re actually (gasp) a nice person?! Most people won’t use it against you, and you won’t feel stupid about it forever. It’s that whole “treat people the way you want to be treated” thing. And I want strangers to tell me they like my shoes, and I want people to reach out. I want to trust people to be real with me.
3. Make fewer resolutions. Live spontaneously. You know, within reason.
Anyway, here’s to a happier 2014.
if you read nothing else from this blog, read this
After spending the better half of the past couple of days sending out my Christmas greetings/annual update/warm and fuzzies, I’m still not done. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to send a personalized, heartfelt page-long message to every person who has ever made an impact on me, though I’ve certainly been trying. And now, I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that I am physically tired. (Okay…that could also be from the traveling. Shush, logic.)
So this is for everyone I’ve ever called a friend or colleague or with whom I’ve shared some small moment of kindness:
I have been blessed with really wonderful friends and mentors who have supported me through painfully dark times, and I don’t always take the time to appreciate that.
Beyond that, I’ve had the great fortune to know a lot of kind, genuine people in passing, to share beautiful tender moments that I never properly acknowledged.
We might not talk much now. We might have never exchanged much more than a few words here and there. I might not be able to tell you this personally because I’m too socially awkward and/or it would be too awkward to do so for some reason or other.
But at some point, you probably listened to me venting about something stupid or gave me a heartfelt note or smiled at me when I was feeling lonely or showed me the right poem at the right time or simply asked me how I was doing and meant it. Maybe you came over to talk to me at a party where I didn’t know anyone or messaged me on the anniversary of a loss.
Maybe I simply saw you being nice to someone else when I was feeling particularly cynical, like the other day when a Muni driver cheerfully pulled up closer to the curb when he saw that a man with a cane was going to have difficulty getting on the bus. Maybe you just give lab mice extra treats, and I find it sweet. (I know, I know. I’m a crazy person and remember weird things and am too easily touched.)
You might have waltzed through my life briefly and carelessly, neither of us realizing that I needed you at that exact moment to remind me how beautiful the world can be.
If you’re reading this, if any of this sounds remotely familiar, you probably did some little surprising thing that touched me, and it mattered more than you know.