Friday, July 18, 2014

"I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia": Do our memories really make us who we are?

I read memoirs to meet incredible people with incredible stories.  Su Meck's memoir "I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia" tells the incredible story of how at age 22 she was struck on the head by a ceiling fan and suffered a traumatic brain injury.  In her memoir, she pieces together her treatment (which seemed inadequate for the extent of injury), her life at home with two her two small boys after the accident, her marriage to her ever absent husband, Jim, and her survival without any memories and without the thinking ability that she had before the accident.

I will never look at ceiling fans the same (the day I started reading this book, my husband stuck his head under our ceiling fan in the bedroom that was recently installed to check if it was wobbling and I freaked out a bit until he moved his head away from the blades). I will also never take my intact memory or ability to learn or function in my life for granted.  Su Meck's story reminded me that we can really do whatever we want to do in our lives even when we are presented with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to success.  After her accident, Su mimicked those around her without understanding the "why" behind actions.  She would frequently have what she terms "lightening" episodes where her brain would almost do a system shut down when she was presented with too much information or things got too intense.  Sometimes these "lightning" episodes would happen when she was alone with her two boys, and even when she was driving.

As she coped with being misunderstood by her husband (who is brave for allowing his wife to share their story since he comes off as a villain in many respects), her family,  and the medical community's lack of understanding at how severe her injuries were and the extent of her memory loss and functionality, she achieved so much every day.  Even getting breakfast, lunch and dinner together for her family was a huge task for her not to mention that she went on to teach aerobics classes, volunteer in her son's classes, move to Cairo and learn how to function as a mother in a new space, and she even goes on to achieve a college degree even though she basically had to relearn everything including letters, colors, numbers, reading and writing at the age of 22. After applying to be on the Phi Theta Kappa board at Montgomery College, and being selected as an officer, she and the other members were asked to bring in a bag of significant objects to aid in getting to know each other.  Su brought her "Hop on Pop" book and explained to the group that it was the first book she had ever read. She shocked everyone when she told them she read it at age 22.

Because she opened up to that group, her life began to change again.  Being accepted by her fellow Phi Theta Kappa members helped her to see that she people needed to hear her story. Daniel de Vise from the Washington Post wrote a story about her (and eventually went on to help her write her memoir).

Although this book wasn't the best written memoir I have ever read (there are so many exclamation points in this book), but I overlooked the lack of style and graceful writing knowing that the author's incredible story of climbing her way back after a traumatic brain injury led her to write a book about her experiences in order to help others who might be suffering in silence like she did for so many years.  Su Meck's book is a great reminder for me why I love memoirs - they show me that nothing is impossible and they connect me to amazing people who I would have never met otherwise.  Stories truly do connect us to other people, and Su Meck is one person that I feel honored to be connected to after reading her memoir.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"Save the Date": Save your time and read something else

I have attended over 36 weddings, and feel like I am somewhat of a wedding guest expert.  At these weddings, I've been a bridesmaid, a musician, a reader, a greeter, and watched as my husband was a groomsman, an usher, a d.j. or the musician.  I love being a big part of weddings, but being a guest with no responsibilities or financial obligations other than getting there and buying a gift can be pretty great, too.

A few years ago, on our flight to my best friend's destination wedding in Puerto Rico, my husband and I wrote down our memories of each of the weddings we attended either separately or together and gave them a rating.  Just recounting the love and joy as well as some of the wedding mishaps that either we as guests encountered or created lasted longer than when our plane touched down in Puerto Rico, so the entire five days that we were at the beautiful resort and attending wedding festivities, we laid on the sand or by the pool and talked about the favorite parts and our least favorite parts of each wedding.

When I saw Jen Doll's book "Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest" on a recommended reading list for "hot summer reads," I was excited to pick it up and find a kindred spirit who has seen the wedding circuit and had funny insights into the wedding world.

I'm not sure exactly what I expected from this book, but I know that it wasn't what I wanted.  For something that I thought would be a quick, fun read, I slogged through each chapter which contains a narrative about one of the weddings that she attended.  Besides the first wedding chapter about her very first wedding ever attended as a child, she goes on to tell about her drunk hook ups, her friend drama, her designer dresses, her insights into the world of love and marriage and relationships, and her inability  to stay sober at receptions.

I found Doll's narratives shallow and sad.  I didn't find a kindred spirit or many funny moments to chuckle about or to feel connected to as I read.  I mostly rolled my eyes as she got herself into one drunk situation after another - a volatile outburst, picking fights with friends, a temper tantrum as a friend tried to pry her from a dangerous situation at a wedding after party, or passing out and waking up with a horrible hangover.  Each chapter presented another of Doll's failed relationships and it was hard for me to keep all of her boyfriends straight or to understand why any of them stayed with her in the first place.

It's not that I have never had a drunken experience at a wedding, or that I think wedding days need to be perfect.  I have attended every kind of wedding to those with receptions in the basement of firehalls, to those that are in fancy hotels.  I've been to weddings so beautiful and personalized that I cried and others that were so dreadfully boring that I couldn't wait to get to the open bar at the reception only to find that there was no alcohol available for the guests because it was against the religion of the bride's family.

Doll seems to have attended only one kind of wedding which is one that requires a certain kind of dress and heels (that she describes in each chapter with more detail than the wedding itself).  Although Doll admits to having "kind of a drinking problem" the alcohol soaked receptions that end in uncomfortable moments seem to be the constant through her wedding experiences as well.

At the very beginning of the book, Doll makes a few very important insights about weddings.  She says that "while one might assume a wedding is about them - the couple getting married - a wedding is about everyone.  It's a means through which we guests can identify and reidentify our friends, our enemies, our lovers, and those we no longer love.  Through it we see what we want, what we don't want, what we think we want, and sometimes, dangerously, that we have no idea what we want.  Each wedding we attend, in whatever role we uphold, will highlight some aspect of our own lives, reflecting and reframing the way in which we look at ourselves."  That's what I love about weddings.  Each time I go, I am reminded about the beginning of a love story.  I am reminded that I love to dance, and see my friends.  I am reminded about how much fun my family is.  I am astounded by the depths that some people go to in order to make their wedding uniquely theirs to reflect their love, and sometimes I am saddened by how much money gets thrown away on just one day for the sake of show.

In Doll's "Save the Date" she shows a soft side every once in awhile for the couple getting married, but mostly she dips into the darker side of herself.  I love when people are real and divulge their "not so pretty" personality aspects.  Where Doll comes up short for me is that she doesn't seem to be aware of the flaws she repeats over and over again.  Maybe the audience for her book are the other elite New York City socialites who go to big (and small) fancy weddings to get drunk and hook up.  I'm positive I wasn't the right reader since I found so little to enjoy in this book.

The biggest take away for me, is a reminder that I love going to weddings, and I know there will be more coming in my future since my sister in law recently got engaged. It's fun to be a guest and see the beginning of someone else's love story as I reflect on my own.  My husband and I will be celebrating our 15 year anniversary in August, and it has been more than a tumultuous ride, but absolutely worth it.  The wedding is just one day - maybe for the guests just as much as for the bride and groom, but the future for all of them is forever.  My wish for all the weddings you attend in the future - be a good guest and try to leave your cynicism for love and for weddings aside as you watch the bride walk down the aisle.  And maybe just maybe try to be conscious of over drinking as to not make a total fool of yourself.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"The Gifts of Imperfection": A life guide

"How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves." - Brene Brown

Brene Brown's Ted Talk is one of my favorites of all time.  Her quality to allow people to feel deeply and take a hard look at the way they live their lives inspires me.  Researching predominately in the areas of shame and vulnerability helps her to guide people to a "Wholehearted Living" revolution. She defines wholehearted living as living with courage, compassion, connection, and deliberate boundaries. Her book "The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are" serves as a guide to wholehearted living and can truly change the way people view themselves and their lives.

Right when I moved to Crystal Lake, one of my very dear friends had a package waiting for me to welcome me to my new home.  Inside she had bubble bath, some tea, a cute towel and the book "The Gifts of Imperfection."  I cried a little when I got the package.  Moving is overwhelming; the most overwhelming part is how much new there is every single day.  New is great and change is important, but getting a wonderful package from home from someone who truly knows my soul made my whole week feel more normal.  My friend's package was another reminder for me to stay open and know that I will find exactly what I need, exactly when I need it if I give myself a break.

Giving myself a break is sometimes easier said than done.  My husband and I are the types of people who want to have everything completed RIGHT NOW, but after a major move to a new state where we know virtually no one, we are learning patience. Patience with home renovations. Patience with finding places. Patience with our daughters' see-sawing emotions as they transition away from everything they know into this new space, and most of all patience with ourselves.  Brene Brown's book helped me to love myself even more through our new life beginning here and recognize that loving myself is the key to success through this journey of change.

Each chapter of her book leads the reader through a series of guideposts (Letting go of what people think, letting go of perfectionism, letting go of numbing and powerlessness, letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark, letting go of the need for certainty, letting go of comparison, letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth, letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle, letting go of self-doubt and "supposed to," letting go of being cool and "always in control"). The guidepost titles themselves were enough to motivate me, but Brown's soothing tones and down to earth approach on each of the topics through her life stories helped put everything in perspective for me especially during this huge time of transition in my life.

I don't need to be certain and being vulnerable in this new space is a given, but after reading Brown's lessons, I feel that I can give myself permission to be imperfect like when I tripped and almost did a face plant at the splash pad while trying to retrieve my 5 year old from the too high monkey bars, or when I accidentally hit the bumper of a car in the parking lot as I adjusted my GPS on my dashboard and tried to talk to my daughter at the same time.  All this new takes focus, and I am constantly reminded that I need to concentrate to achieve that focus.

There are bound to be missteps, but I feel like Brown's book gave me even more tools to join the wholehearted revolution.  I might not be perfect, but I am proud of who I am and even prouder of the person that I am becoming.

Each night as we sit down to our family dinner, my daughters, my husband and I all say our "charm" for the day ("charm" was a term that our daughter, Story, came up with when she was 3.  It means to say what you are thankful for from the day). My charms come so rapidly since we have moved to this new community.  I have so much to be grateful for - a beautiful new home, my amazing and quirky little family, friends who send me packages from home, my health, being surrounded by love and for new experiences and opportunities. Most of all I am thankful that I am beautifully imperfect and able to embrace myself exactly as I am.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"10% Happier": Meditation 101

It's been awhile since I've been able to write (so this will be a long entry), because my life has become a chaotic blend of boxes, upheaval, packing, unpacking, letting go, moving on and reentering in a new location.  People move across the country every day, but no one ever really talks about the physical and mental toll that it takes to do it.  Brene Brown included moving as one of the one of the "great unraveling journeys" in her book "The Gifts of Imperfection" (which I am currently reading).

Somehow through my "great unraveling journey" from our home in Pennsylvania to our new one in Illinois, I have kept a mantra in mind: "I am exactly what I need, exactly when I need it."  Through our epic moving adventure, that mantra has worked beautifully.  We put our house up for sale and got two great offers within the first 48 hours it was on the market.  We found a new home in our new location on the street that we wanted in less than 24 hours.  We made it through the appraisals and inspections, the loans and approvals, the paperwork and the legalities unscathed.  Even our cross country trip with our 10 year old pug who hates cars, our 14 year old cat who hasn't been out of our house in 12 years, our 9 year old daughter, and our 5 year old daughter went well.  We only hit traffic in Chicago the whole 12 hour journey.

So here we are.  In a new home.  In a new neighborhood.  Everything is new.  Everything is possible.  It's scary and exciting.  Frustrating and wonderful.

With each new moment (today I was so proud to find my new grocery store!) I keep my "I am exactly what I need, exactly when I need it" mantra in the back of my head.  I think of all the "self help" books I have read or books like "The Alchemist" that teach when you are open to the universe, the universe opens up to you. That's how I feel about Dan Harris's book "10% Happier." I needed to read a book about someone else's journey to find their calm center in a world of chaos and uncertainty.  It helped as I went through my own "unraveling" by giving me hope that if I just stayed focused and open to the universe that I would be okay.

Dan Harris wrote his book "10% Happier" to explain his experiences and spiritual journey to daily meditation.  Harris co-anchors "Nightline" and the weekend edition of "Good Morning America." After deeming the voice in his head "an asshole" he decided to find out how to get more centered and stumbled into the realm of meditation which he believed was everything that he hated - sitting still, being calm, being present, and even occasionally chanting surrounded by people that smell like feet.  His years of covering various extremist religions left him skeptical about anything remotely spiritual, so his journey really speaks to the every day person who is fed up with feeling stressed all the time but doesn't know what to do about it.

I loved this book from the very beginning.  I thought Harris's narrative of his early news anchor frenetic days and his out of control substance abuse, his journey to spirituality all rang true and pure.  He showed me reasons why meditation works and reasons why he and many others doubt the validity of meditating, but how the tides are turning.  I also loved that he offered practical advice for those just starting out with meditation (there is a nice guide to meditation for beginners in the back of the book).  Mostly, I loved how he met the gurus along the way like Eckhart Tolle and how he explains their philosophies on life and meditation.

I needed this book to help guide me through my "great unraveling journey" and direct me to a calmer place.  When Harris attends a Joseph Goldstein meditation retreat, his thoughts on the days spent in quite meditation really resonated with me especially when he raised his hand and asked how to not worry about things since there are genuine things to worry about like missing planes.  Goldstein answers, "But when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: 'Is this useful'?"

During my moving journey, I continually asked myself that question.  Is it useful to worry about my buyer's buyer's loan? Is it useful to worry about whether or not we will make our closing date in our new home? Is it useful to worry about how my animals will react to a long car ride? Every time I answer the same thing: It is not useful to worry.  I still worry, but now I remind myself that it isn't useful to do it.

I mostly love that Harris doesn't propose that meditation is the answer to happiness.  He claims in his own life that it has made him 10% happier which is a great percentage.  Who doesn't want to be 10% happier?

I know I do.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

'Life After Life': The Author's Power to Create Time, Meaning, and the Perpetual Do Over

"No point in thinking," she said briskly, "you just have to get on with life . . . We only have one after all, we should try and do our best.  We can never get it right, but we must try."

"What if we had a chance to do it again and again," Teddy said, "until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

It would be wonderful if we were able to redo our life's mishaps, tribulations and tragedies - still births, Spanish Flu, falling accidents, drowning, suicide, the death of brothers and sisters, and even reverse the fate of millions by assassinating Hitler.  In Kate Atkinson's critically acclaimed novel, "Life After Life" she toys with the notion that life exists in perpetuity - a constant state of flux and do-overs. Outcomes can change with the twist of an ankle down the stairs, or a slight timing of events.  Even if personalities don't necessarily change, the events of life can.

I wasn't sure when I first picked up this hefty novel if I'd be able to make it past the first 20 pages.  It opens with a scene of Hitler's assassination, but the next very short chapter opens the novel again with the still birth of baby girl, and then the next chapter begins the birth chapter again with slight changes.  I restarted this book three times (thinking I was just to dumb to grasp the concept), and as the saying goes, three times is a charm because on that third try, my brain fixated on the characters enough to move me through the choppy first chapters and into the winding paths of "Life After Life."

Chronology does not exist in this book, but the continuity of the storyline flows.  I latched on to the familiar scenes - this is the part where she drowns, this is the part where she deals with WWII, this is the part that she deals with the fate of her family and the Spanish Flu, this is the part where she can possibly stop the death of her brother, the death of Nancy, the death of herself.  It becomes a dizzying effect of time, space, jumping from storyline to storyline, but following the same family of characters.  Ursula, described as a very intense child with green eyes and an old soul, has the power of reincarnation and she has an awareness of this gift enough that her mother, Sylvie decides that she should see Dr. Kellet who does not flinch at Ursula's knowledge of the future. Ursula both knows and doesn't know that life feels familiar.

What Atkinson created in the pages of "Life After Life" becomes a homage to the power of the author. How does an author decide on the fates of her characters?  How does she decide who lives and who dies?  How does the story connect and teach and create meaning for the readers?  Where does a story begin and end? These questions are also the questions of life, right? We are all a bit like Ursula - maybe not being reincarnated to stop Hitler or to befriend Eva Braun or to save our lovable brother, Teddy's life, or to pick up a stray dog after a bombing and name him Lucky, but we are all wading through the constant ebb and flow of life - making meaning of the past, looking toward the future and finding meaning in our present day.  There are those odd occasions where it all feels like we have been somewhere before or we'll catch ourselves saying "this is meant to be" or "I knew this would be the way things turned out."

For me, the magic in Atkinson's work stemmed from her playfulness even in the face of tragedy.  Her unending literary references (which I loved) made me smile even in the most tragic spaces of Ursula's life. Although Ursula was not the most engaging character I have ever read, I wanted to see her succeed.  I wanted her to live through the tragedies.  I wanted her to "bear witness" to the destruction of England during WWII and be strong enough to carry on.  I never stopped rooting for her to beat fate or to create fate or to be happy.

Atkinson's novel restored my faith in the power of the contemporary writer.  We are all products of our past and all working with what we have in the present state, and hoping that we can make a mark on the future.  "Life After Life" paves a very meandering path for future writers to aspire to.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

'The Divorce Papers': Making light of something not so funny

"Marriage is a counter-cultural act in a throwaway society."
—Dr. William H. Doherty, noted marriage scholar and therapist 

Researchers estimate that 40-50% of all first marriages end in divorce.  Even more disheartening is that 60% of second marriages end in divorce.  To find the lightheartedness in this VERY serious situation is not an easy task.  Susan Rieger's debut novel "The Divorce Papers" tries hard to accomplish this very feat.  

This epistolary novel relies only on court documents, office memos, email correspondences and letters to tell the story of a marriage and family crumbling.  The story revolves around 29 year old, New England, criminal lawyer, Sophie Diehl who by doing a favor for her boss gets inadvertently roped into taking on her first divorce case.  Because Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim, the daughter of a VIP client of Sophie's firm, likes Sophie she decides very forcefully that although Sophie has no training in divorce law, that she is indeed the right lawyer for the job.  Sophie protests wildly to no avail.  If Mia wants Sophie, Sophie she will get.

Because Sophie has no divorce experience, Rieger is able to educate the reader about divorce law and documents as the story (and the myriad paper trail) evolves. Stories are told within the stories about Sophie's own troubled relationships with her parents who divorced when she was young.  She also divulges her crush on her boss, a tricky relationship with a handsome director, and an eventual probable romance with another lawyer.  We meet Sophie's best friend, Maggie, who is an actress and confidant, always helping Sophie to see the best in her parents and herself as Maggie tries to divert her from making horrible professional and personal mistakes.  

The main story of the Mia's divorce from her husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim and their custody battle of their 10 year old daughter, Jane takes precedence over the backdrop story lines and the drama Sophie creates in her own life.  I don't know about you, but divorce isn't funny to me, and the story of the overprivileged Mia and Daniel and their spoiled tantrums about trust funds, inheritance, $10,000 annual gifts from Mia's wealthy father, and a $3,000,000 vineyard property didn't make me giggle once.  Seeing the heartbreak and devastation that the feuding parents inflicted on their daughter made me sick to my stomach.  In divorce, the fight becomes more about damaging the other person, making them hurt either in their heart or in their financial future and neither of those things is very appealing or funny.  

As I read this book and waded through the documents that laid out financial assets and tried to divvy up a life in dollars and cents, I kept telling my husband, "We are never getting divorced.  EVER." The divorce procedure is common if by estimates almost half of all marriages end with a split, but the sadness of the dissolution of what was once a bond made me more angry at the two adults who acted like children.  I didn't rally for Mia.  I didn't care about Dr. Durkheim's future with the dermatologist.  I mostly just felt disgusted that they took so long to figure out that neither of them would be in any kind of financial necessity from the divorce.  Mia continually says that money is no object and that she is willing to pay double to have a criminal lawyer with no divorce experience represent her.   

Mostly divorce is sad.  I've seen my friends go through the battles.  I've watched them worry about money, worry about splitting up custody of children they love, worry about their prospects for happiness in the future.  I can't see many of the 50% of people who have gone through the battle want to read court documents again or giggle about spouses blowing up at each other in front of their child.  

I did read this book quickly and I was mildly entertained even if the epistolary style seems to be the M.O. of YA novelists mores than adult fiction writers. Mostly, I was reminded of the work that goes into marriage to keep love alive.  It isn't easy to stay in love, but this book was more of a warning to me to never end a once solid marriage in an endless paper stack of court documents, office memos and emails.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

'Little Failure': Coming of Age as a Jewish Russian Immigrant

It took me some time with this one. I don't know what my barrier was to Gary Shteyngart's memoir "Little Failure."  It has everything I love - humor, an almost unbelievable coming of age tale involving immigrant parents and the less than perfect son, wanting to please and separate from parents all at once, embarrassing moments in elementary school and middle school, underachieving in high school and college, and then the quest to become a writer and lover and human being.  I love that stuff.  I love memoirs that are raw, honest, and ache with the quest to find one's truth.

It's all there, but something stopped me from jumping up and down every time I picked up this book.  Something stopped me from laughing out loud in the funny sections (and there were so many that sometimes it's easy to overlook just how funny this book is). Now that it's over, I can appreciate the journey of the book even more as it meanders from Gary's Russian roots to his family's immigration to Queens, New York. From there it travels beyond his childhood to Gary's high school and college years where he decides he wants to be a writer and even beyond that into his adulthood of failed relationships and failed decisions.  Finally it travels back to where it started, in Russia, as Gary sees new aspects of his father's life and puts together pieces of his own.  This book truly is a triumph of a memoir even if I felt like I had to slog through it in order to finish it.

There is no doubt in my mind that Shteyngart possesses an amazing writing gift.  These essays have been strung together in dizzying literary heft.  At times the writing is dense with details and others light with humor and then back to a dark sense of self-deprecation.  That self-deprecation (as the title suggests) stems from Gary's childhood.  His mother's nickname for him was "Little Failure" (how sweet) and his father's lovingly called him "Snotty" due to Gary's serious asthma issues.

I loved portions of this book like when his family receives the Publishers Clearing House that they won $10,000,000 and they believe it until they "find out the truth quickly and brutally"and he ponders that "In Russia the government was constantly telling us lies . . . but we cannot imagine that they would lie to our faces like that here in America, the Land of This and the Home of That." I also loved his descriptions of The Solomon Schechter School of Queens and his painfully funny retelling of his circumcision at age 8 ("In school, my penis is trying to put on a brave face. It can't tell anyone what happened or they'll make fun of its owner, Igor, or Gary, or whatever").

At times, though, the writing felt a bit too dense with too much meandering back and forth and then the repetition of some details due to the essay format being pieced together into a memoir.  The self-deprecation part of the memoir gets a little old, but honestly, that's just Gary coming to terms with himself.  He isn't all that likable, but at the same time there is a quality of sincerity in "Scary Gary" at Oberlin College where he spends most of his days drunk and high and underachieving as much as possible as he listens to Beatles records for college credit.  He's brutally real about his shortcomings and his life disappointments.

What I ultimately can take away from this book is that even our little failures (and in Gary's life there are many) can become huge successes when we are real about them.  I learned Jewish Russian history and saw a side of New York City that I never saw before - the plight of the modern immigrant, the hopes and dreams of his family, their struggles, their failures, their intimate moments as a family trying to discover their new identity while retaining their culture and history.  Gary sees himself as a flawed human being (as we all are) and can also recognize his own talent as a writer.

Did I laugh the way that I do when I read David Sedaris? No.  Did I emote the way that I do when I read Frank McCourt's immigrant experiences? No. Did I feel that I had read an amazing literary voice that will be considered one of the greatest contemporary voices.  Absolutely.