4(2) Days of Letting Go

2014-02-16 17.57.23Though I have a lack of empirical proof to support my theory, a vast number of my friends and acquaintances seem to be atheists and agnostics. I’m surrounded by a collection of folks to whom organized religion sounds more like a form of torture than a fun, voluntary activity.

My good friend Toni asked me to hang out after work one Wednesday and I told her I couldn’t go out because I had choir practice. Her disbelieving brows echoed the “like, church choir?” that came out of her mouth, a typical reaction I get from many of my friends when they learn I attend church on a pretty regular basis.

I’m not one of those who tosses my faith in anyone’s face – I think it’s not anyone’s business but my own – but as it applies to this post I’ll share a smidge. I was raised Episcopalian (think Catholic-lite) and as an adult I’ve tended toward attending Christian churches, usually Congregational or UCC. As a girl who frequently gets stuck narrating in her own head, church has been a way for me to pull my thinking outside of myself and feel more connected to the world around me.

Last night, I drove to my church for choir practice, and discovered that the church was holding an Ash Wednesday service, with choir practice to follow.  The pastor provided us all with a slip of paper that said “God, I pray for…” with space to write a prayer. Later in the service, the slips of paper were burned to ash and that ash combined with oil was used to make the oily ash (ashy oil?) crosses on foreheads of parishioners.

Here’s what I wrote on my slip:

I pray for the courage to forgive myself – to release myself from expectations of perfection and to really live my life.

Elissa, the pastor, (picture someone about my age, with a nose ring, who isn’t afraid to shake things up) looked around at everyone and said the next 40 days of Lent are about letting go. She said “now’s your chance to transform what holds you back.” This really hit home for me. Inspired by her words, I have decided to try something a little different. Rather than give up something like chocolate or soda for Lent, I’m going to let go of something every day for 42 days (yes, Lent is only 40 days, but how could I pass up a chance for 42?) and then check in to see how I’m feeling at the end.

Day 1: Today I let go of my fear of failure

I sometimes do things that feel like failure, and I sometimes do things that feel like success, but I am not my failures. Unfortunately, it also means I am not my successes. Letting go of the attachment to claiming successes as integral to my sense of self will free me from the reciprocal need to claim the failures as some dysfunctional aspect of myself. I am giving myself permission to fail and to really know it doesn’t define me.

I will also admit, since I started working on a post about letting go, I haven’t been able to get the song from Frozen out of my head…

Book #4

dixie lullabyFrom Goodreads:

In Dixie Lullaby, a veteran music journalist ponders the transformative effects of rock and roll on the generation of white southerners who came of age in the 1970s–the heyday of disco, Jimmy Carter, and Saturday Night Live. Growing up in North Carolina, Mark Kemp burned with shame and anger at the attitudes of many white southerners–some in his own family–toward the recently won victories of the civil rights movement. “I loved the land that surrounded me but hated the history that haunted that land,” he writes.Then the down-home, bluesy rock of the Deep South began taking the nation by storm, and Kemp had a new way of relating to the region that allowed him to see beyond its legacy of racism and stereotypes of backwardness. Although Kemp would always struggle with an ambivalence familiar to many white southerners, the seeds of redemption were planted in adolescence when he first heard Duane Allman and Ronnie Van Zant pour their feelings into their songs.

In the tradition of Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, and other music historians, Kemp maps his own southern odyssey onto the stories of such iconic bands as the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and R.E.M., as well as influential indies like the Drive-By Truckers. In dozens of interviews with quintessential southern rockers and some of their most diehard fans, Kemp charts the course of the music that both liberated him and united him with countless others who came of age under its spell. This is a thought-provoking, searingly intimate, and utterly original journey through the South and its music from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Why This Book: I asked Jenella what book she recommended I add to my Project 42 list, and she gave me her answer in gifting this book to me for Christmas. This, in itself, is enough of a reason for me to include it, but when you add in my own journalistic proclivities and my love of music, this seems like the perfect next book for my project.

On Middlesex, I remained in the front doorway. I took my duty seriously and didn’t budge, despite the freezing wind. Milton, the child apostate, would have been confirmed in his skepticism, because his spirit never returned that day, trying to get past me. The mulberry tree had no leaves. The wind swept over the crusted snow into my Byzantine face, which was the face of my grandfather and of the American girl I had once been. I stood at the door for an hour, maybe two. I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.

Jeoffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that is oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Book #3

#3 Middlesex (Eugenides)From Goodreads:

 I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of 1967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

Why This Book: Several reasons. It comes recommended by several friends, I saw it sitting on the shelf at one friend’s house (and promptly borrowed it, deciding this was the next book for the project), and I’m currently living in the town of… (wait for it) Middlesex.

There’s no wrong way

I’m not always aware of the pressure I place on myself to maintain high standards, even in self-imposed projects with no specific expectations. For this project I planned to read each book, then write some sort of response to post here on the blog before starting the next book. Life, as I’m increasingly forced to acknowledge, rarely proceeds in the way I have planned.

The same day I finished reading Prodigal Summer, I was spending time outside with two adorable munchkins – ages three and almost three – enjoying a warm splash of sunshine in an otherwise chilly November day. There were bunnies hopping around the yard with kiddos trying to catch them – I wasn’t much concerned they would succeed but it was adorable to watch their process – and the neighbor from across the street came over to chat about the bunnies. I had no idea one of the other neighbors had rescued them from the humane society about a year ago and they had been hopping through the neighborhood ever since. He meandered back over to his house and proceeded to use special leaf picker-upper tools to take the leaves from the neat pile on his front lawn and place them in large black garbage bags. By the time his project was completed, there were sixteen plastic bags neatly organized by the side of the road awaiting pick up.

With Kingsolver’s words still reverberating in my mind, I was thinking of the folks I know in rural Vermont for whom leaves are a wonderful tool used to mulch a garden, and are part of the natural flow of decomposition to help the soil provide nutrients for future generations of plants. Watching someone take those leaves and put them in giant plastic bags where they will not be able to contribute to the cycle of life made me aware of the plethora of ways we humans interfere and make things harder for this planet. I was also thinking of the domesticated bunnies allowed to roam free through the suburban neighborhood, and much to the surprise of the neighbors not only did they survive but they have thrived. Perhaps it’s a nudge toward realizing that if we, as humans, can step aside a bit, life will often find its way.

I started this post thinking I didn’t have the time to do justice to Kingsolver’s command of descriptive language and ended up writing a response after all. Who knew that by explaining how I was breaking my own rules, I would end up following them.

Just for a minute, she herself had forgotten to be sad. She felt guilty and hopeful both, realizing that beyond these numb days lay an opposite shore where physical pleasure might someday surprise her with its sharp touch. Where she would see colors again.

– Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer

what we’re really doing here

Sometimes life kicks you in the teeth. Sometimes there’s a perfectly adequate explanation – someone died, you lost your job, you lost a lover – and sometimes you feel tossed upside down for no specific reason at all. My personal upside down-ness was a major reason I started this project. I’m terribly afraid of being alone – of feeling lonely, of ending up alone, of feeling distant from friends. I’ve experienced some awful situations that certainly made this worse, but really it’s something that eats away at me and, to some extent, always has. I’m incredibly lucky to have an amazing family and truly amazing friends I can call / text / email / message when I feel lost and panicked, but it’s unreasonably difficult for me to ask for help. I don’t want to be “that friend” always asking for support and help so she can stand back up again. So I tend to suffer in silence until it explodes – on a day like today. When I cry at lunch, cry at the gelato place (who can cry over gelato, you ask? That would be me), cry for hours feeling lonely and lost.

So here I am, world. I need some help. Alone is great and fabulous (so people tell me) and I need to find a way to feel comfortable with it or I’ll keep repeating this pattern. Mostly I’m hoping that reading these books and writing as I muddle through will help me move in a new direction. I am blessed in so many ways and have unbelievably fantastic things happening in my life. I also figure I can’t be the only smart, capable and devilishly fabulous person dealing with this sort of insecurity and if my journey can help someone else muddle through, that’s even better.

I am smart and capable, and I know I can do this.

Okay, maybe know is too strong, but I believe I can do this. That’s enough for now.

Book #2

prodigal summerFrom Goodreads: Prodigal Summer weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives inhabiting the forested mountains and struggling small farms of southern Appalachia.

From her outpost in an isolated mountain cabin, Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive wildlife biologist, watches a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region. She is caught off-guard by a young hunter who invades her most private spaces and confounds her self-assured, solitary life. On a farm several miles down the mountain, Lusa Maluf Landowski, a bookish city girl turned farmer’s wife, finds herself unexpectedly marooned in a strange place where she must declare or lose her attachment to the land that has become her own. And a few more miles down the road, a pair of elderly feuding neighbors tend their respective farms and wrangle about God, pesticides, and the possibilities of a future neither of them expected.

Over the course of one humid summer, these characters find their connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with whom they share a place. Prodigal Summer demonstrates a balance of narrative, drama and ideas that is characteristic of Barbara Kingsolver’s finest work.

Why This Book: When I asked people to tell me what books they thought I should add to my list of 42, this book came up more than once. I’ve enjoyed several of her other books over the years and am excited to read this one.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.

Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

– Stephen King, On Writing