Well, I wish I had some good advice to give you, friends. I don’t.
In truth, I have both a bucket of nothing and everything as I sit here reliving the past year. 2019 left me with wreckage that was beautiful, heartbreaking, and completely soul-rearranging. Parts of it were so heavy that, at times, I felt my chest would cave in or burst. Ever felt like your whole body was encased in a compression sleeve? If you have lived life and experienced struggle, I’m sure you can relate. Right now, however, it feels like the calm after the atomic bombs, and I’m going to carry these leftover bricks with me into 2020 with hope and grace in the chance that I can set up new foundations and habits, make something pretty out of the rubble. Write more. Read more. Create more. Nothing is remarkable about my pain, but I hope to make something remarkable out of myself.
Books aside for a moment, let’s chat a little bit more about death because so much in life sits on its lap. I am forever changed. Transformed. When we nearly lost my mother, I felt as if my body was carrying a bag of skin around. My skin bag (sounds gross, but still using it) went to hospitals and emergency rooms. It tried to sleep. It listened to doctors. It researched the heart’s anatomy. My brain couldn’t connect to the present moment. Then, when I lost my brother, my family and I felt the kind of loss that you would never wish on anyone. Let me pray that each of you never have to receive that call first, that you never have to hear your mother cry over a lost child. When people say grief comes in waves, I know now what they mean. It’s a tsunami that becomes a hurricane. The storm never ends, but there are moments of reprieve.
Pain changes the landscape. The lens from which I see the world now has been permanently corrected. There has been a pinpointed focus applied to living in the present moment now, along with a monumental shift of beliefs. I take care of my time. I treasure it. I value it. I believe in God. I protect my new marriage, which is my one bright spot from last year. I look at problems and my own faults with an intensity I never have before. When it feels like all is lost and there is no hope, the world goes from blackest black, to black and white, to gray, and then, ultimately, to all the shades of color you never took time to see. It’s the pain that turned the leaves from green to gold, the sadness that made me stop to feel the warmth in the patch of sunlight on the grass again. And like I said, these feeling aren’t original, but DAMN, it it still feels nice to dump them out on the page.
Let’s get back to books and reconnect to my original intentions. This post isn’t so much about my brother and loss as it is about beauty. To get through the blackest black, I started working through my hopelessness, depression, and anxiety with therapy and medication (Thank you, appropriately parceled doses of Prozac, Xanax and B-12); during the black and white phase, I started to try to improve my health in small ways: eating less fast food, hot yoga, listening to friends with good intentions and advice, drinking less- I started to read again; during the gray phase, I questioned everything about myself, how I spent my time, my choices, my work, my passions, who I am, who I want to be, how I treat others day-to-day, the last words I say to people. It didn’t happen overnight, but I started to see colors again. It is in this spirit that I’ve decided to share with you a few books that I read in 2019 that allowed me to discover bits of beauty and hope and color. It’s the least I can do for anyone else that is entering blackest black or leaving the gray.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I found this book on Bill Gates’ “Summer Reading List.” I thought, “Well, if Bill Gates likes it, it must be decent fiction.” Replace “decent” with “enchanting.” I believe Amor Towles has become my all-time favorite modern author. A Gentleman in Moscow was transporting in a way that I needed at that exact moment. I connected with the idea of being confined and imprisoned yet surrounded by magic that could be found in the ordinary, a book, a conversation, a room. For me, I was captivated by the delectable words – words that made you want to roll them around on your tongue for a while. His book made me want to read and write poetry, eat fine foods and wines, have tea with a stranger on a rooftop, appreciate freedom. All the descriptions made you feel as if you too were staying at Hotel Metropol, finding treasures, feeling lost and found, finding love, companionship. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s relationship with Nina and his commitment to his friends, Andrey and Emile, sharing secret dinners in the kitchen. Oh! What a treat. It’s not a dense or easy read, it lies somewhere in the middle. And once you devour it, immediately pick up Rules of Civility. Also amazing.
Educated by Tara Westover
Any recovering homeschooler will want to read this memoir. ::raises hand:: Think Glass Castle or Running with Scissors, but darker and less humorous. It’s so graphic and painful that every few chapters or so I had to put it down and take little breaks. My own parents went through what I thought then was an extremely religious period in life where I felt the fire of God was constantly breathing down my neck. My Dad played Satan in the passion play. We spent three days of the week at church. However, there is no comparison of my upbringing when compared to the threat-laden junkyard of the Westover family in the mountains of Idaho. Without giving too much away, I’ll say this. If you are struggling to overcome something heinous or any type of abuse, this memoir’s author and all she accomplished, amidst battling her father’s dangerous belief system, will give you hope. It will leave you with a feeling, in what I call your “deep tummy,” of both hope and sadness.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Kate Quinn = creator of the most memorable characters. The heroines are so poignant, the villains so despicable. I read the Alice Network in bite sizes, savoring and appreciating its rich characters, picturesque post-war landscapes, and poetic language. The heroines, of which there are many in this book, (Charlie St. Clair, Rose, Eve, Lili, Violette) each seem to capture a raw, zestful spirit and exhibit angles of the female psyche that aren’t as often portrayed in historical fiction. Though these women may have bent stems and withered petals, they are empowered by their harsher edges and experiences. These “Fleurs du mal” that spied throughout the Great War personified the fury and passion and unraveling of the many unknown victims of a war that was fought by woman who kept to the shadows, risking their lives to pass secret messages and codes to the resistance, wrapping them around rings and hairpins. I really enjoyed all of the dead ends, loose ends, paths, and routes taken in this book. Whether Finn was at the wheel of the Lagonda or Eve was steering her Luger in a certain direction, everything about the story was in motion and each road was interesting and felt necessary. I’ll be honest that I did have to put the book down for a few weeks when I realized I was getting close to discovering or witnessing what happened to cause Eve’s disfigured hands. And, man, that scene was oh so painful and oh so poignant at the same time. I will never see Baudelaire the same. Yeats all the way, for me.
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
I think it was in 2006 that I went to Paris with my brother, my friend Julian, and our French teacher, Mr. Hanks, from our High School, who we begged to be our chaperone and show us the sights. We saw the Louvre. Ate snails. Went to Versailles. It was the first time me or my brother had taken a trip together or left the state of Texas, and I’m so grateful to have those memories of magic. What this book did was make me want to revisit France as an adult, and if I can’t, I’ll just reread this book over and over. The main character, Perdu is a character that makes you want to unhinge your barge and float downstream peddling books like medicines for those with maladies of the heart and mind. And the tango scene. I must learn to dance tango immediately.
The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll
Last, but not least, if you are obsessed with lists and tasks and goals and spreadsheets, you have to read up on The Bullet Journal Method aka #Bujo. This book is a tool that will make you remember your love of putting pen to paper, writing notes in hand. Even if you find yourself lost in technology and your various machines, you can appreciate this method of removing and prioritizing brain clutter. I ended my 2019 with this book to begin my 2020 with a clear path and plan ahead.
Note: It was before the death of my uncle, our troubles with Iran, and the national coverage of the devastating fires of Australia that I began to write this. It feels very inconsequential to explore personal feelings and hardships when so much of the world is suffering or on that brink of the blackest black. Ultimately, opted to share, but not without deep regard for current affairs, fears, and loss.