Five Favorite Reads of 2016

I’m not gonna lie, I really killed it in 2016. I always make time for reading, but as a working, writing, mothering adult I don’t usually manage quite so many books. There was a fair amount of escapist reading in there, but I’m still absurdly pleased.

Even if it makes picking five favorites rather more of a challenge this year than in previous years.

The Forbidden WishJessica Khoury’s The Forbidden Wish was a clear winner for me for 2016, though. I listened to it on audiobook first, and then I read it, and then I listened to it again. It has everything I need to absolutely lose myself in a book: a genuinely complex heroine, the supernatural, a rogueish romantic interest, and just enough authentic drama to keep me up at night – and mooning over the story the next day. If you read even one book I recommend this year, it should be this one.

Not surprisingly, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom were flawless – and I told her so and she tweeted back to me so THAT HAPPENED. Bardugo is a national treasure. Each tremendously gripping and masterfully-crafted in their own right, they hung together in all of the right places and diverged in surprising, delightful ways. I do not typically enjoy books that switch perspectives, but her pacing was spectacular and I cared so much about everyone that I was all too willing to follow her characters anywhere.

Vassa in the Night

Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night was a grim, glorious little surprise. I’d read a review that said if you liked weird, you’d like this book, and do I love some weird. But there’s more to it, even, than that. Reminiscent of Kelly Link but with more to hold on to and a far greater investment in the lives of the characters she’s tormenting, I took my time with this one, savoring the strangeness of the world and the hot-beating heart at the center of it.

I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians a few years ago, and Quentin Coldwater was such a selfish prick I almost didn’t finish the series. While I get he had some growing up to do, I found it so stifling to be limited to his perspective and spent most of the book wanting to throttle him. The Magician King, with Julia’s voice, was a breath of fresh air, and Quentin’s growing maturity was dynamic and believable. The Magician’s Land knocked my socks off, and I am so glad I gave the series another chance.

The Forgetting

The world-building in Sharon Cameron’s The Forgetting was inventive and unique, and I was bound to love a book where writing one’s own story played so central a role. I really enjoyed the narrator and the detail that was put into her culture, and the direction the story took was surprising. I appreciate when books aren’t what I expect, and books that remind me of some of my favorite episodes of Star Trek.

What did you read this year? What did you love?

On New Year’s Eve

During my brief stint as an adjunct professor, I would often preface activities I knew my students were unlikely to enjoy with commiseration: it sucks, I get it, we’ll get through it together. It wasn’t until I taught for a summer reading enrichment program a few years later that I realized my approach was flawed.

Happy New Year

It was one of the hardest summers of my life. I was very pregnant (Little Sister was born in September) and on my feet all day. The days were long with minimal time to catch my breath between groups of preschoolers, elementary school kids, middleschoolers, and high school students and adults in the evenings. But it was a pretty incredible summer, too. I don’t think I ever felt more empowered as a teacher, nor felt like I had made such an impact.

One of the lessons that has stuck with me since that summer is attempting to frame hard work in a positive way. Yes, it might suck, but as the person in charge, I don’t have to say that. What I can say is what we’re all going to get out of it, how it’s going to be helpful, how it’s going to make us better. Those are the things that I can say out loud to assert some modicum of control over how we’re going to internalize it.

And now I’m in charge of me, and my experiences. Not only how I live, but how I talk about my life.

2016 was hard, but it was a really good year, too.  This morning I joined a dear friend for a Zumba class we both laughed and flailed inarticulately through, and after an awkward fifty minutes, we cooled down to Prince’s Purple Rain. Sweat was in my eyes, and a few tears, too. I stretched my sore muscles. It was absurdly tranquil. It felt like saying goodbye and hello at the same time.

There’s a lot to look forward to in 2017, and I have strong friends and allies who will help me work, fight, and celebrate. I know I have to work daily to control my own negativity bias, and to be a force for positivity in the lives of others.

I need to focus on what I can do, and do what I can.

On Christmas Eve

My girls woke me this morning, both of them clamoring at the side of my bed, touching my hands, my face, tugging at what scraps of blanket my husband didn’t steal. Little Sister had spent her second night in her big girl bed, and she didn’t get out of bed “even one time,” according to Miss E. But now they are up. They are ready. They are hungry. It’s Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve

We made pancakes together while listening to holiday music. After a little while, their daddy roused, entering the kitchen holding two dolls that had been deposited in bed to keep him company.

“I woke up with these two, but I swear, it didn’t mean anything,” he insisted.

I snorted. My girls were oblivious.

While we made banana faces on each pancake and sprinkled them with powdered sugar snow, two delivery men arrived with a new mattress and box spring to replace the broken one we have been sleeping on for more than a year, the mattress that dips in all of the places my body did when carrying first one baby, and then another. I am not sorry to see it go. My legs and belly and hips are changed enough that even my sentimentality will not miss a ruined mattress.

The delivery men commented on how good breakfast smelled, but because my husband thinks giving them pancakes might be weird, I boxed up some cookies instead. Miss E waited patiently to hand them over, returned to her plate once she had done.

“I gave him the cookies and said ‘Merry Christmas’ and he smiled,” she said, mirroring the expression. “I’m a nice girl.”

I want to say, “Sometimes.”

But I don’t.

The day passed quickly after that, with errands and tidying up and naps and meals. I made sure to write what mattered to me in my journal, to remember to be grateful for what I have, to remember that there are good things, sweet, sincere, worthy little things. But even so when we each opened a present before bundling into the car to look at Christmas lights, when we clutched travel cups of homemade hot cocoa, when Little Sister was as agreeable as ever and Miss E dawdled and complained and finally relented, I felt the nag of anxiety.

“I wish my heart didn’t feel so heavy,” I told my husband. I have told him this before, with different words. I have been telling him this a lot lately.

There have been hard days in the past. Months. Sometimes more. Knowing it’s temporary doesn’t make it any easier in the moment, and neither does the guilt I feel in not being completely present, in feeling like I am wasting beautiful moments by not being able to truly give in to them. Still, I read this tonight and I am heartened. Because it is in my nature to feel first and write soon after I am here now, sitting beside my Christmas tree. There are too many presents underneath but because I am not supposed to feel sorry about yet more things I am trying not to.

The light is steady.

The light is warm.

The light is mine, and it is my children and in my children, in the love I feel for my husband. It shows us who and how we are, roots us in what we can do together, for each other, for others. I am frightened and I am sad but I am not undone.

I am daily remaking.

It is Christmas Eve and what I have and hope for myself I hope for you, too.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Sithmas

Am I writing all of these posts just for the puns? Maybe.

Today we’re visiting one of my favorite fictional worlds, which I believe could use a little cheer after its latest installment. Which isn’t to say I didn’t love Rogue One, it’s just, my heart resembles something like a crushed up candy cane after seeing it.

I have to admit that I’ve never actually seen the real Star Wars Holiday Special. It was before my time, though with the internet I suppose there’s no real excuse. I still think, based on what I’ve read, that I prefer this one.

And another for laughs. This isn’t the worst Christmas song ever – I reserve that accolade for anything by The Carpenters and this melancholy number – but it’s close.

There’s No Place Like Chrome for the Holidays

Building on yesterday’s frivolity, I have some similarly foolish things to share today.

This one’s a real oldie but an absolute goodie – especially now that I am grown up enough that I listen to NPR, and it would be easy to mistake Lynne Rossetto Kasper for Molly Shannon or Ana Gasteyer. In fact, I think I’d be far more likely to listen to The Delicious Dish than I ever am to stay tuned in to The Splendid Table. Even without Alec Baldwin’s sonorous tones.

And of course Bustle has gathered an assortment of festive and hilarious SNL sketches, if you’re into that sort of thing. Because of course you are.

Happy Christmas from the Internet

I promised I would begin sharing silliness yesterday, but if I can’t break arbitrary promises on the internet, where can I?

There’s considerable nostalgia at Christmastime, and it makes sense. It’s a magical time of year for the youngest of us, and while I do believe it’s possible to make very merry as a grown-up, I remember the holidays of my youth with a ruby glow, Making liberally glue-sticked and cotton-balled construction paper Christmas decorations with my brother, helping my mom string lights inside the house and my father out, obsessing over the TV guide and when the classic holiday specials would be on television, drinking hot cocoa on Christmas Eve and driving around looking at lights. We still do this last with our children. And perhaps when they’ve grown up a bit, they’ll keep themselves up too, too late singing Christmas carols in bed, as my brother and I did, waiting for Santa Claus.

Love this imagining of a favorite classic from Tom Whalen.

Love this imagining of a favorite classic from Tom Whalen.

I’ve had some sweet moments as an adult, too. One year my husband, then-boyfriend, surprised me with Nenya, and my excitement certainly approached that of the engagement ring he slipped onto my finger a few years later. The year after we were married I obsessively tried to acquire a hodge podge of bride’s tree ornaments. I made stockings for the two of us and one each from the same pattern for our girls when they arrived. We’ve watched them grow into the wonder of the season, and anticipate many years of fun to come. I believed in Santa Claus until i was nine, and I had to be told that he wasn’t real. Either my parents were really, really good, or my imagination just wasn’t ready to let go. I expect a little bit of both.

And as my community of friends and the source of some of my joys has grown online as well as off, there are some digital delights I revel in each year, such that it doesn’t even feel like Christmas, really, until I have. So I thought I would share them with you here. They’re not going to change your life, but they might make you smile. And this year, I know I need that more than ever.

Enough with the preamble. I’m giving you two treats today, because I failed you yesterday.

    1.  Every year that I can remember as a child we watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the past few years we’ve watched it with our daughters, too. This year my youngest asserts that every piano solo is “Charlie Brown.” But what I don’t watch with them I certainly giggle to myself over, and that’s this classic performed by the cast from Scrubs. Probably only funny if you watched this show and wanted for a hot minute to be one of the cool kids a doctor, but still.
    2. I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation. So this gets me every year.

‘Tis the Season

In no particular order, here are some things that I would like for Christmas.

Star Wars Carolers

Please read a book. Let me know which one and I’ll try to read it, too. Then we can talk about it, maybe over coffee? But please don’t make me leave my house. It’s cold outside and I like my jammies.

Something you’ve made. We can trade – I write a mean short-short story. Or, at least a mildly amusing one. Shall I eviscerate someone in fiction for you?

A mid-afternoon .gif war. I’m most in need of stimulation around 2:00 PM, but as napping at work is definitely out, something to keep my neurons firing would be most appreciated.

An honest review of my work. Here’s a little secret: this writer would rather you shared my books than buy them. I mean, buying is excellent, but if I had to choose between the cup of coffee I can buy with my share of the royalties versus the priceless word of mouth recommendation, I know which one I would prefer. I’ve even got a few copies of my books floating about that I’d be willing to provide for your reading pleasure.

A book recommendation. These are surprisingly challenging to come by, or they’re too general and don’t feel like they’re really for me. I am diligent about what I like, though. Maybe we like some of the same things?

I’ve got some early gifts for you, too. Beginning this coming Sunday, December 18, I’ll be counting down to Christmas with the seven silliest and best things about celebrating in the age of the internet. I’m as nostalgic as the next person for the holidays of my youth, but there’s plenty to appreciate about being able to connect with fellow twinkling-light obsessed nerds at the speed of a tweet. If you don’t want to have to check back here for frivolity, sign up for my email newsletter and nerd out at your leisure in your inbox.

Under the Covers

My second book has a publication date, a title, and now it has a cover – along with a matching refresh of the first book which will be re-released in paperback at the same time. I haven’t been belting it from the rooftops because I am wildly superstitious. If I celebrate too soon, it won’t actually happen, right?

But, it is happening, so I’m going to make a little noise.

Here’s this first lovely little mystery. I feel so lucky to have seen my first book baby realized in not just one but three separate covers, and this one has a sweeping depth to it that I really love. I also had the opportunity I am sure far more deserving writers have dreamed of: to revisit a few sticky places in the story and make small but mighty edits to a book that was first published three years ago.

The Hidden Icon

I want to go to there.

And here, too.

The Dread Goddess

The Dread Goddess follows Eiren in her flight from Jhosch, from Gannet, and from herself as she attempts to reconcile who she knows she is – a gentle-souled storyteller – with the monstrous dread goddess who dwells within her. There’s more of her world, more stories, identities literally and figuratively unmasked, madness and havoc and kissing. I am extremely excited about continuing her story and I hope that you are, too.

And I won’t be sitting on my hands until their publication on May 30 of next year – I’ll be working on the third and final book, partnering with the spectacular Nita Basu of Diversion Books on some promotional fun times, and blogging and reading and mothering and dreaming. If there’s something I can do for you or questions I can answer about how I am not going slowly insane managing all of these things, you know how to reach me.

On Being Good, Being Kind

Current State My husband and I watched Kubo and the Two Strings last night and it was breathtakingly lovely. Near the end, for no specific reason that I can point to, I began to think about dying. Not the abstract certainty that yes, I’ll die some day because we all do, or the deep mourning I have felt when someone close to me or to my family has died, or the fear that comes on me when my children are too quiet or absent too long or running high fevers in the middle of the night. Deeper, darker, realer than that.

Being dead.

Going to sleep and never waking again dead.

Getting in my car and crashing into someone or something, feeling it roll over and over and over me dead.

Just, ceasing to be.

I had my head on my husband’s chest, felt his shifting muscles, his beating heart, my own seize up and tighten, tighter, as I imagined not being. Even now I can’t even capture the terror that gripped me. That I am, now, that I live and breathe and dream, now, and someday I won’t anything. One day I’ll be gone, and I might not even know that I’m gone because I’ll just. Be. Gone.

I don’t prescribe to any particular faith. I never have, and perhaps I never will. A very good friend of mine recently told me of how she prays during times of uncertainty and trouble, how she’s learned to recognize the answers to her prayers in herself, in others, in the world. It sounded to me like a pleasant dream I’m not sharing, a guidance I sorely lack but don’t even know how to begin to crave. I have always been firmly agnostic, though I feel it’s one of those things that lacks firmness. I’m not sure what’s out there, what’s after, what came before, but I’m not ready to say there’s nothing.

Neither am I ready to say there’s something.

The movie ended and I sat up and when he started to talk to me about how he felt about it, I started to talk, too, and my mouth just hung open. I started to cry. Harder. And then I couldn’t breathe, and my heart felt slow and fast at the same time.

“I’m scared,” I told him. “It’s scary.”

I’ve not had a panic attack of this magnitude since college, and I’ve never contended with my own mortality in so visceral a way. But I’ll tell you what’s the same between this response and the crippling anxiety I experienced as an undergraduate: stress and lack of control. At 23, I was so overwhelmed by my course load, my job, my family, and my aspirations that I quit two of those things and sought counseling. Eleven years later, I have the presence of mind to know that this is just a moment in time, and eventually I’ll feel better. Unfortunately, my scope of worry is now so much bigger.

I feel maddeningly powerless about a number of things right now, but I’m painfully Type A, guilt-ridden, and suffer an unreasonable sense of duty that urges me to continue to try anyway. To throw myself against the wall until it breaks or I do. I look at what’s in my life and tell myself I can’t quit anything, but that’s not really true. I can and I must, because it’s pretty clear to me I can’t keep on like I have been. I don’t have any more to give to stress and fear and uncertainty and speculation. I need to focus on what I can do: raise strong girls. Elevate the stories, amplify the voices, and share the incredible transformations in schools and communities through my work. Love my husband and my friends. Tell my own stories, not to escape the world I am living in, but to put magic into it.  I can’t be sorry but I already am.

I need to believe that this is enough.

This is plenty.

This is good.

 

Where I Write

I am not one of those who prescribes to the notion of a writing sanctuary. While this doesn’t mean I don’t lust for a She Shed of my very own, it does mean I can’t let something like place determine my capacity and commitment to write.

Some of my favorite places for word craft?

  1. Doctor’s offices.
  2. In the car with a little one napping in the backseat.
  3. Meetings where my presence is not really necessary but is required.
  4. Coffee houses… really any, but I have a few favorites.
  5. My writing desk.

I have listed my writing desk last because it really is the one place where I do not spontaneously write – and thus the writing that happens there is the writing that feels the most like work.

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Because it is work, and sometimes a change of scenery, or an unexpected moment seized for creation rather than tedium, is all the motivation that I need.

But, my desk.

I write there, a lot. It’s a place of seriousness, of getting down to business, of meeting deadlines. I am lately interested in what I can do to make it a worthier space. I bought it a few years ago off of Craigslist after searching for “antique school desk,” and my dad refinished it for me. The top is still pocked with the vigorous efforts of some kid working to dismantle it a compass point at a time. The drawer is often stuffed full of drawings from my daughters, rogue colored pencils, beads, buttons, receipts for things I think I am going to return to the store but never actually do, and handwritten notes to myself about things that I am writing or want to write.

I leave it relatively bare, because I haven’t wanted distraction. There’s a jar of dice and a ceramic pencil cup filled with dry erase markers for my Pathfinder game, and I recently purchased a tiny, weighty iron owl who is meant to hold place cards but instead holds my gaze when my mind is wandering. It’s cozied up next to a functional fire place that is nevertheless rarely lit, and whose mantle is stuffed full of novels.

I have a lamp because warm light is essential, and an uncurtained window because soft, blue daylight is beautiful, too. There’s a print of a paper cut tree hanging on the wall. Sometimes there are dozens of post-its, usually not. It’s a good space: clean, comfortable, nook-like. I grew up in a bedroom that was probably the size of your closet, writing in bed with a spiral bound notebook balanced on my knees because there wasn’t room for any other furniture. So I like small. The less room there is for my body the more there is for my mind, right?

What about you? What are your creative spaces like?