The 2018 “To-Read” Challenge

If you have ever read me before, then you have probably discovered that I love creating annual challenges. In 2013, I challenged myself to take and post a picture OF MY FACE every single day for 365 days.

I did it because I realized I had gained a lot of weight in the seven years since I graduated law school. I had a ton of pictures on facebook, but very few of me and almost none of me with my dearest friends, because my self-esteem was so low.

Enter the selfie.

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Now.

It was through this process of looking, truly looking, at my own face every day, often 10 or 15 times, captured in time, for a year, that I began to develop my true adult sense of self and self-esteem.

Then.

Several months later I began the yoga practice that continues (to my great soreness), to this day. I started riding horses again. I bought a horse. I changed jobs and got to work for the lawyer I admired more than any other (who is hopefully not reading this and thinking I’m a suck up), lost about 100 pounds, gained amazing physical and emotional strength, and set myself on a higher arc of self-evolution.

I have challenged myself with “everyday, baby,” as a way to ensure that I work out every day I travel, usually discovering local yoga joints or hiking paths or city walks, to ensure I eat and drink clean on the road, to communicate with my friends.

I routinely challenge myself with fasts and cleanses, nourishing my body with more kale than is probably sane, largely replacing coffee with tea, and eliminating all but the occasional alcohol (but sometimes, a girl just needs bubbles, agree?).

At the same time, I try to challenge my mind. On my other writing site, I often create writing challenges when I get stuck. Write the rainbow, write the alphabet, write the seasons, write the gods.

But perhaps my favorite challenge is my annual reading challenge on Goodreads.com. Goodreads is easily my favorite social media site. The place where I have made so many wonderful friends, the place where I connect with strangers and my oldest pals over my most beloved passion. Books.

I do not understand people who inevitably say ” … I love to read but I never have time.” I have no sympathy. If you have time to eat, drink, and breathe, you have time to read. (Now, if you don’t love to read, then go do what makes you happy. We all have our passions).

But as a horse-owning workaholic who reads and writes for a living, I haven’t gone a day without reading for at least 30 minutes in … maybe a few times in high school. But by age 19, I committed to a daily practice of reading. As I said in law school, when I would astonish my friends by reading something of my own during finals, I do not feel like I am me, unless I am reading something of my own choosing.

My tastes are eclectic, strange, varied, and nerdy. My Goodreads

I read a lot of YA and I read a lot of science. I am passionate about literature, and addicted to girl-lit mysteries. I read economics and graphic novels. Business books and Vampire Academy series. I read in 3 formats: Paper books, audible, and the kindle app on my ipad.

And since I joined Goodreads in 2007 and got my iPad in 2010, I have amassed a to-read list of almost 750 books. Anthony Trollope, Ruth Reichel, So. Much. Churchill, the remaining Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton books I saved for my forties, and a literal ton of cheap or free e-books written by friends and strangers.

My reading goal this year was 100 books. I changed it to 150 in July when I knew I would meet it, and will finish the year with about 2010 books.

So for 2018, I am going to set my reading goal at 150 again. But here, in the quiet sanctuary of my blog that no one reads, I have my real challenge. 100 of those books must come from my goodreads to-read list or from the pile amassed on kindle and iBook. Obviously I have to leave 50 books for new discoveries, books on pre-order, last minute dash into Hudson’s at DFW because I NEED A BOOK, books.

But 2018 will be the year of Anthony Trollope and Ruth Reichel and the 652 books on my to-read list. With a (likely brief) review of each here.

I still need a couple more challenges (NOT resolutions) for 2018. But for now I need to finish the books in my current stack and get read to explore those books I decided in 2007 that I just had to read.

Any suggestions?

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High-Functioning Anxiety

A friend emailed me this link on https://themighty.com/2017/04/high-functioning-anxiety-needs-to-be-taken-seriously/.

I’m putting it as a lens through which much I say about my life can be viewed. I am struggling, have been struggling, between *letting go* of the need for control, constant motion, ever mounting projects, and the cost of letting go.

For me, the cost is high and requires an enormous amount of external stability. The loss of control, the panic, the fear that I never want anyone to see costs me for days if not weeks when even my most beloveds see it. I am still reeling from an attack I had a month ago because someone saw it.

I’ve taken practically every medication available, had every kind of therapy, tried every kind (and I mean every) of destructive behavior and in the end, I still don’t know what works all the time.

Except my addiction to work, caffeine, and likely alcohol when I am out of medicine.

Throw any of those out of whack and I am the friend who goes radio silent for weeks or months as I try to regain sane.

I function at such a high level I have a difficult time getting doctors to take me seriously. I literally fight for medication on a monthly basis, and usually I’m calling from a different city each time. I know what over the counter remedies will help, I will absolutely smoke (though I hate it) to avoid a trip to the ER for panic, and I will hide all of this from everyone and send cheerful texts if I can manage when I am drowning in loneliness but unable to show anyone that I haven’t washed my hair or put on makeup and can’t sleep.

The humiliation of begging over the phone for help as I lose my mind, of sitting in a bathtub rocking back and forth, of being in constant terror is too much. The constancy of external stability is too erratic. The need for order and predictability too annoying.

So I work. Hard. I focus on externalities. I prepare as though every deposition is the most critical 3 hours of my life. I live in hotel rooms, because I can keep them organized and calm.

I travel 3-3.5 weeks a month and work 80-90 hour weeks and I do it to survive. And to some extent this may cost me the kind of self care that provides a brief reprieve — yoga, my horse, my friends, my home — but it also insulates me from becoming that person who is forever falling apart. Who is — like her Mom who killed herself — a ticking time bomb of crazy.

I am viciously hard on myself. I am always surprised when people are kind to me, which makes no sense because most people like me when they meet me. I judge my body and my externalities relentlessly. And I may cry in a bathroom out of fear and rage and too much adrenaline, but no one will see it when I walk into the room.

And when someone is unkind to me, does not like me, judges me, it stays with me for months, years, decades, because it just proves that under it all, I am a mess and too much and if anyone ever got too close, they wouldn’t stay.

Pretty much my life has proven that to be true.

So I work. I work and I work and I show up and help. I may be the friend who disappears, but I am also the one who will run through airports, who will deny her own feelings to help. I always hope my mitzvahs outweigh all the bad parts I see.

There is no good or bad to high functioning anxiety. It is not more or less preferrable to my mother’s long battle with depression or to friends who are more able to share and vocalize their fears. We are all simply people trying to get by. Some of us, like me, have neuro-atypical brains and it shapes how we view and interact with the world.

This is simply me. And how I know to survive in this world.

Writing: New Conversations

I am a sucker for independent bookstores. The kind of place tucked in an urban neighborhood with a used section in the basement, a wide section of popular and edgy fiction, interesting memoirs and non-fiction offerings, and a potpourri of book clubs where people who actually read books come excited to discuss them. For me it’s Left Bank Books, and I’ve been shopping there since I was thirteen, where I acquired one copy of Wuthering Heights.

By any definition, I am well read. I downplay how much I read, because my tongue got a little bloody after one too many run-ins with those people who say: “I love to read, but I’m so busy. How do you have time?” Reading is not something I like to do; it’s something I have to do. Like air, water, food, and shelter, books fall at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I live with my books, carrying them with me from room to room, to work, to the barn, to dinner. I write, underline, and star. I fold pages; write poems on the frontispiece; notes in the margins; questions on the tops of pages.

I also return to my books. That copy of Hemingway short stories from 11th grade lives in my bedroom, and when I want to think about how to say more with a story, I pull it open and start flipping through two decades of notes. Three Virginia Woolf collections scattered around the house, when I need bravery and inner monologue. That copy of Goldfinch on my fridge is my third, because I keep loaning it out, and then need to find it, and read Boris. The poets – Eliot, Cummings, Neruda, Parker, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Whitman – and on and on are in my living room, where I sit at midnight or dawn and write words.

For years, I referred to my writing as “secret w.” My process was monastic in comparison to the deeply collaborative writing I did as a lawyer, where almost every memo, opinion letter, brief, motion, and article, was reviewed, edited, discussed, debated, and revised with my boss. He saw things I didn’t, read sentences in ways I did not intend, saw flaws in the structure, or wheat hiding in the chaff. My legal writing got strong, while my poetry and prose stagnated. It needed air and light.

What I love about independent book stores is how often they foster local writers. I walked in one day for a young adult book group and heard a few acquaintances talk about writing. Fresh off a failed novel, a failed marriage, in some ways a failed life, I screwed my courage to the wall, and asked if they were writers and knew of a local group, and I met Anna, who introduced me to an online writing community.

I read and commented a few hours a day, somehow finding time to add these stories, memoirs, essays, poems, and blog posts into my daily reading routine, accepting this reading time the way I accept my book reading. Finally one day, I opened a text box, wrote a poem and clicked post. I did it the next day, and the next. Until I was posting my writing six or seven days a week for months, while reading and commenting on other writers, bit by bit, building a community of writers who read and commented on my poems and prose, creating a writers workshop for peer critique, nourishing my with fresh blood.

All those conversations I had in the pages of my books came flooding forward. Debating narrative styles, bickering about showing and telling, I remembered Woolf. If wanted to write a piece that began and lived in the thoughts that pass like clouds across my mind, I would read Mrs. Dalloway. To that I received a quick reply from the friend who took my hand and helped me walk into the process of a poem: Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers. I discovered two things: first, how I would approach writing memoirs and memoir-style fiction, and second, I was not alone in my conversations with other novelists and poets. This conversation didn’t just go in vertical directions, but horizontal ones as well. But my fellow writers didn’t let me off easily, challenging me to say more with less, to cut the extraneous, to write like an assassin. I revised stories, Hemingway and my friends in my ear as I wrote.

My truly collaborative writing began with Edith Wharton, when C, a fellow writer and I circled each other, considering friendship, and she asked: “What is your favorite Edith Wharton novel?” The question alone excited me. House of Mirth and Summer, I answered, although I love all of them. Are you more Lily Bart or Countess Olenska? That day, many months ago, C became Countess.

We went back to Emily Bronte, talking about our destructive first loves, our Heathcliffs, until I realized I wanted to explore pieces who I am, not just who he was. But I froze, the topic too vast, until Carole called with the first piece of our “Pieces of Me” series and I responded. We decided to write about ourselves in each color of the rainbow, and now we are pulling out chunks of our soul to describe sensory reactions to summer, and not a day passes when we don’t plot and plan games with words. Her Heathcliff essays drug out old stories, until I began to write things I hadn’t tried in years. Fairy tale drabbles to concentrate my voice; dialogue only stories; games, games, endless word games. A conversation that started by Bronte, inspired by Countess, organized by me, and read by my writing community, and it helped me find, at last, sweetness in my writing that felt true, a sweetness that balanced out the raw and the dark and rounded out my voice.

What began in a bookstore at thirteen with Emily Bronte became something I cannot live without. This practice of reading, digesting, discussing, and writing in response is as elemental as reading itself. Far from the solitary activity it was for a decade, I have a space and a group of people to whom I belong, and with whom I share my most solemn wishes. Now I come knocking on your door, looking for a new community, new mentors, new writers, new books, and new blood for my words. I’m ready for new conversations.

I Hope You Dance – Mother’s Day Post

One of the things left with my Mother’s body was a little book based on LeAnn Rhymes I Hope You Dance.

Do you know how much I fucking hate that song?

I can’t even describe it, but I have what must be a close-to-PTSD trigger to it, because except once or twice, I’ve literally run out of every public venue as soon as I hear the first chords, hyperventilating, in full panic.

She didn’t even like LeAnn Rhymes that much!

My Mom loved Joni Mitchell, and Carol King, Streisand, Nanci Griffith, and Lucinda Williams. She loved all of the great female folk singers (and then had an embarrassing thing for Kenny Rogers and George Strait).

She liked country and loved folk, and Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now would have been a song I could have lived with. It would have helped.

But this LeAnn Rhymes semi-christian Country?

No.

I can’t type the lyrics, because even seeing the song will have me on the bathroom floor keening. But what I can say is this.

I like country and love folk too.

Most of all, I love the Indigo Girls, as I’ve written more than once. Popular music is the only art where I can say – emphatically – that I have a favorite band. I don’t have a favorite author, I have a favorite list of authors. I don’t have a favorite painter, I have a list. Movies, list. Actors, list. Classical, list. But for non-classical music, it’s Amy and Emily and has been since 1990. (Although Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkle are very close seconds).

The universe works in strange ways, and my boss (a straight up music junkie himself) posted the pre-order for an Indigo Girls concert on my facebook page months ago. Naturally I ordered 2 tickets, told the brunette, and then discovered that they were playing the friday of Mother’s Day weekend.

The worst weekend of the year.

Very few people see me when I am truly and completely happy in my skin. But my wife has. Sometimes I let my friends glimpse it, particularly if they are near me and my horse.

But on Friday night, I danced. To the music that has made getting through the worst parts of this life possible. I sang until I was hoarse.

Because I know the words to every song and singing along is absolutely required by Amy and Emily. They wrap you up in their music until you feel ALL the feelings — from political outrage to love to heartbreak to existential questions to

hope. Most of all, hope.

I drank blueberry red bull (they didn’t have sugar free, and I danced in my little black dress. I danced my blonde ass off.

Like no one and everyone was watching. Like the complete weirdo that I am. So completely filled with joy by the music and the people who love the same music I love.

So yeah, Mom. I miss the fuck out of you. But I am dancing.

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10 Years

I have to share this. From the amazing blogger who gave me the courage to like skinny jeans and write a blog and ugly cried with me during YA movies. This is a beautiful testament to her husband! Read HER.

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This week, my husband and I celebrate 10 years of being Mark & Emily. 10 years. That’s a LONG time guys. We are not the couple that gushes about our relationship on social media, we don’t flaunt our relationship everywhere. But this is a milestone that just feels deserving of its own post.

To commemorate 10 years, I dedicate this post to Mark. A digital love letter. Because he’s such a private person (one of my favorite things about him – it allows our love to remain ours and sacred) but there are so many wonderful sides of his personality and character that so many people just don’t know. So I’m going to expose just a few of them (with his permission).

Back in our early days of dating, I wasn’t the most trusting young lady. So I played games with men that I dated, always testing and demanding that…

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Food Adventures

One of the very best things about traveling are the food adventures. I have pretty much tried every barbecue place in Illinois, worked my way through tacos and barbecue in Texas (although I don’t understand why Texans even bother with sides), and love finding hole in the wall joints with every possible kind of ethnic food in every city I visit.

I was recently in both New Orleans and Louisville and may need to just eat Kale for a month, although my new skinny jeans are holding up! Or maybe just some batmas sadako, my favorite Himalayan dish.

What are your favorite food adventures?

PS: I obsessively love kale.

The Oaks & Tabs: It Began with a Horse …

Four years ago, I met this big spotted horse named Chief. I would later learn that he could take pretty much anyone and make them into a rider. He had thick, thick fur with a mohawk mane and a dappled rump. I took my first adult riding lesson in hunt seat (think fox hunting without foxes and jumps in an arena instead of hedges and fences) on a cold as hell day. I was pretty sure I could do it. I grew up riding and had taken riding lessons in my adolescence and middle school years. I was practically born on a horse, as my Mom kept her horse Golden Nugget until she got pregnant with my sister.

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I was sure this would be easy and fun.

Right.

It’s an enormously frustrating thing to know your thighs, not your calves, need to push you up and down in the seat, and your body will NOT comply. Not to mention tight achilles, tight hips, weak calves, and at this point I was doing hard yoga at least 4 days a week.

But god was it fun, and I missed my Mom less when I was in the sometimes quiet, sometimes chaotic student barn at Baskin Farms in Wildwood, Missouri, which I have to recommend to any adult who wants to learn how to ride (or re-learn as it were).

Fast forward two years, and I had leased a couple of horses, a quiet mare and a handsome gelding who is still my prince charming. But then I bought Beau, or Mr. Bojangles, as we call him.

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Beau is my baby and I missing him today, as I sit in a hotel in Louisville waiting for the Kentucky Derby. I haven’t decided if I am going this afternoon to the race. I don’t have a ticket, and I’m tired after yesterday at Churchill Downs for the Oaks, the great international filly turf and track race.

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It started with a horse, and here I am, in Louisville, for horse races that my Mother loved. I don’t know how I ever managed not to be here. Ever managed without a horse. I owe so much of everything to do with that ride to my friend Tabs, so much of this blog, so much of my push to find a big life. So naturally, I am thrilled I got to spend yesterday with her at Churchill Downs. And thrilled that she has been with me for every part of the life that began with a horse, with her own gray horse and her sense of adventure and hilarity.

 

Sharing these things that my Mom loved so much has been a massive part of my grieving process. And yesterday, at Churchill Downs, I’m sure my Mom was with me in spirit.

But I know my friend Tabs was in person, and that means everything in the world. Sometimes even the worst things are possible if you have a horse and a friend.

What better place to celebrate a 13 year friendship than a race for girls?