A Holiday Audiobook Ritual

There’s a lot to love about the holidays; the lights that make even the most monotonous trip to the store seem magical, the gift of a snowfall any time during the month of December (because it so rarely happens on Christmas Day here in Colorado) and our daily rush to check our advent calendar. More than anything, I love the small rituals that weave their way through the season giving us something to look forward to each day in a constant flurry of friends, family and activities. As fun as it can be, the older my kids get the more I notice that there is just less time - less time to savor the small moments of quiet each day and it seems more difficult to ease into the spirit of the season. I’ve tried to come up with little things I can do on my own to solidify the feelings I try to encourage with my kids and having my own personal rituals somehow makes the time, no matter how quickly it passes, more meaningful.

One of my favorite things to do each season while running errands, working, going for a long walk, cooking or tidying up before bed is to have a rotation of audiobooks that I only listen to during the holidays. Since curling up with a book is a rare gift and the kids have their own favorite movies they like to watch, audiobooks keep me in the mood to celebrate while knocking things off my list. Having an Audible account is a monthly investment that has always proven to be worth the cost and their generous return policy (don’t like the reader? not the book you thought? too scary for your child? audible will happily refund credits) ensures that you can fill your audio library with books that you love. Libraries are also a great resource with CD, downloadable audio and Play Away options.

I had to throw in some children’s literature because, well, it’s comforting!

  1. One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Dodie Smith - I think this story became so ubiquitous through its Disney fame that many of us forgot it was ever a book. I’m not sure my kids (or I) could make it through the print version, but the audiobook is fun and keeps you interested by finding the turns it takes from the film.

  2. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri - If Jhumpa Lahiri published her grocery lists, I think I would preorder them. I can’t choose a favorite but I’ve noticed this one finds its way to the top of my pile every year around this time.

  3. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott - The March Sisters. Enough said.

  4. Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter - I’m not as in love with Jess Walter’s other books but this one is executed so beautifully that you’ll be pulling off your mittens to google “Cinque Terre” before you know it.

  5. The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin - This book is far more readable than most books that find their homes in the “self help” section. It comes to you in the spirit of self awareness, compassionate reflection and optimism. If you’re contemplating changes big or small in the new year, this is a great way to get a jump without feeling deflated before you start.

  6. Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers - In a similar vein as 101 Dalmatians, relive the joy of Mary Poppins while also being reminded to throw a little magic into your holiday itinerary.

  7. The Martian, Andy Weir - The best thing you can do before starting this audiobook is force yourself to forget that it was ever a movie. Suspenseful, interesting and with an excellent narrator, you’ll find yourself walking those extra few blocks to keep listening.

  8. Not Becoming My Mother, Ruth Reichl - I’m a big fan of Ruth Reichl and if you struggle at all with family dynamics you’ll take a lot from this quick listen.

  9. Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe - Rob Lowe? Say what? I listened to this book last Christmas on the drive from La Jolla to Palm Springs and back and I absolutely loved it. As someone who is fascinated by Hollywood inside stories I found this full of little gems. Plus, it’s Rob Lowe. Endearing, witty and self deprecating he wrote a good book that he reads wonderfully.

  10. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - I fell in love with this book when it came out but didn’t ever reread it. On a whim I played the ‘sample’ on the audio version and immediately downloaded it. This narrator is perfection. Any frequent audiobook listener will tell you that a wrong choice in narration can totally kill a book you love (The Goldfinch being a tragic example) but this one makes the experience even richer than it already is.

  11. Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann - There’s the book (great), the movie (also great) and now there’s the audiobook read by Laverne Cox. A late night writing Christmas cards just got a whole lot more tolerable.

  12. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis - My kids always start playing this one around the holidays and I find that I often keep listening when I’m alone. A double dose of winter magic and childhood nostalgia.

  13. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris - It’s impossible to prepare for any kind of family gathering without some advanced preparation and in that realm, David Sedaris is the master. It’s hard to pick a favorite but Me Talk Pretty One Day never fails to lift my spirits and keep me laughing. Lazy eyes…lazy legs…his adventures with Hugh in France.

  14. Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher - Carrie Fisher has been on my mind lately and I keep meaning to watch Bright Lights again because her dynamic with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, is fascinating. December 27th will mark the one year anniversary of her death and as sad as that is, I’m so glad that she left us this book to remember her many opinions and stories. Just hearing her voice will make you smile, guaranteed.

Chilly November Playlist

Between the midterm elections, the news and the brutal cold wind I’ve been standing in every day for kids’ sportsing, I’m constantly fighting the urge to take up smoking again maybe while also eating a Pepperidge Farms coconut cake in the bathtub. Thankfully, there is music. Even though the month has just started this playlist has been a blanket to wrap myself in each day. Emotional thumb-sucking if you will. Yes, there is Joni Mitchell but don’t worry, there is also Martha Wainwright (yup, THAT song) because even though this is the season for looking through cooking magazines like porn, it’s a time when we cannot afford to tune out to what is happening around us. Call your representatives to fight for recounts and gun legislation, scale back your wishlists to allow for donating to causes that matter to you but also go to a museum and surround yourself with beautiful work. Go see a live human performance of any kind. Knit something awful (done.) and hit shuffle on this playlist for a little of everything good.

July Heat Wave Playlist

That moment when the sun drops just enough to cool the temperature and make us wonder if suffering through the day was worth it after all. A three-year-old who never fails to comment on the sweatiness of his back each time he gets out of the carseat, kids making a beeline for the creek near our house to cool off after playing outside in the scorched grass. Me, constantly chastising our two black dogs for laying in the sun and lecturing them about staying hydrated. The inevitable text chain that starts most nights, friends compiling whatever is in the fridge for an impromptu shared dinner. The school and sports emails creeping in, reminding us not to get too comfy with our lax schedule. A lump in my throat whenever I think about summer ending...and also thinking which arm I would give for a night where the house is still and quiet before 10. Driving home just before dark, the windows down, music blaring. This is summer. 


Going to the Movies: An Argument In Favor

There are a lot of small, seemingly insignificant freedoms that go by the wayside after you have children. Little things once a regular occurrence or done without much thought at all become a distant memory until much later, sometimes years later, your memory is jogged and you'll stop and think, "Oh yeah, we did used to know where all the good brunch spots are." Or, "I can't believe all the hours I spent on a weekend afternoon mindlessly combing the used bins at random record stores." For me, one of the biggest things that I abruptly stopped doing post children was going to the movies. I still remember the last movie I saw in a theater just before my eldest son was born and the acknowledgment that it would likely be such. I didn't really understand (thanks in large part to our lengthy space between kids) how long it would be until I would become a regular movie goer again. That on the rare occasions we did go out how risky it would seem to go to a movie that may be awful or how, given a few hours to myself I would jump to the thought of heading out for lunch or dinner with a friend, maybe even taking on something so mundane and disinteresting as a day of errands, alone, with my favorite old episodes of This American Life blaring on my headphones. 

Only rarely would the thought of going to the movies cross my mind, typically when something interesting was coming out but it was a passing thought that I rarely ever acted on. It seemed like a hassle to coordinate and, to be honest, it seemed a little self-indulgent. How could I justify going to the movies in the middle of the day? And how the hell could I stay awake past 8pm, cozy in a dark theater? The longer I refrained from going, the more detached and clueless I became about the actors on the screen. The stories seemed largely unoriginal and the big business of movie-making seemed to overshadow any interest in artistry, whimsy or originality. 

As my sons have gotten older we've done our best to be judicious with screen time and short of the occasional IMAX, movies weren't high on the list of our go-to activities. I'm sure this decision is a combination of our commitment to limiting media, our fairly wide age ranges between kids and events of the last decade that have stolen away the security many of us felt in large public places. I hate the reality of that but I know it's not just me. I know I'm not the only one who has nixed the idea of music festivals and other big events for that mild, nagging fear of, "What if?" Who has gotten very adept at spotting EXIT signs when I go into a crowded place and who holds the hands of children in packed crowds just a bit tighter than I used to. 

Subconscious reasons aside, it took my oldest son pointing out how out of touch he felt with conversations among classmates to make me rethink the movies as a destination. My husband or I might make a reference to a classic movie scene that would bring on a blank stare from my son, 11 at the time and we'd be surprised that he'd never heard of it. Of course he hadn't!  I'd started a list a long time ago of movies I someday wanted to watch with him but hadn't thought much about current movies, the thing that, in full pre-tween throes, mattered most to him. And so, we stopped waiting for the next Star Wars installment to come out, stopped insisting that he read the book before he saw the movie in the theater (that one was a little tough, I won't lie) and we started going to the movies. Often. For his 12th birthday I even made him a coupon book of two tickets per month for a movie of his choice with a friend or brother. Interestingly, as delighted as he is with his new status as a frequent movie-goer, I feel like I have benefitted immensely, too. How had I forgotten what it felt like to debate between titles and dissect cast members? The thrill of choosing movie snacks (my purist formula: something sweet, something salty/crunchy) to be smuggled in with the help of my largest bag and coat pockets. It seemed insane to me that movies, specifically those in a theater, had once been such a large part of my life that I had friends who I really never saw outside of our standing movie dates. We didn't have much else in common but we found that we loved each others' taste in movies and made it a point to call each other when there was something new worth seeing. Independent films, foreign films, summer blockbusters, the occasional formulaic rom-com...we watched them all. 

This all came back to me on one of those first movie dates with my two oldest boys. As much as it felt indulgent and mildly guilt-inducing, it also felt like a welcome respite from the outside world; One of the last few places where we as a society are sternly told to put our phones down and sit, without multi-tasking or checking in on nothing, for two hours. These consistent movies dates with a varying line-up of our family members have become something I look forward to, especially on days when the stresses of adulthood have me ready for a forced break, a two hour vacation cocooned in a plush seat watching something I'll maybe love, maybe hate but be happy to talk over on the ride home. And so, if you're a lame ass grown woman like me who once took on a Puritanical vow to only have fun once the laundry was done and the floors were clean, I say leave them. In the ultimate spoiler alert, the laundry will never be done and the floors will likely always have a mysterious layer of fine grit and a few spots sticky from a blend of jam and some other unidentifiable substance. But summer is coming and there is a movie theater calling your name - cool, dark and showing a movie whose plot will likely seem vaguely familiar but that's not the point. 

Grauman's Chinese Theater photo credit: Carol M. Highsmith
1950's Drive-In: unknown
Somerville Theater: Stefanie Klavens

Spring Playlist

In Colorado it seems like a jinx to get too into anything "Springy"...one day you spend an entire afternoon out in the garden making plans and putting in seeds only to wake up the next day to a wet, heavy spring snow that strips your trees, young and old, of many of their branches. As a general rule we don't pack away our gloves, hats and boots until June 1st. 

Knowing that, we've been enjoying a Spring Playlist that lets us get hopeful about little shoots coming up in the yard and the return of birds but not too excited. If your own listening needs a little sprucing up while you're anxiously awaiting the official start of summer, give this a try!  

Send me an Angel...

Occasionally I have a moment where I step outside myself and take a look at my life as a whole; the way I eat, parent, dress, spend my money and the extent of my hippie tendencies shocks me. There was a time when switching to American Spirits was my big sacrifice to the greater Earthly good. 

We've been Waldorf schooling our kids from the time our eldest was old enough to grind wheat and make corn husk dolls and although there are points of this pedagogy I don't always agree with, overall, it works for us. Within that community I've found like-minded parents who have become dear friends, kids who my own can connect with on a deeper level and a sense that my sons are being constantly reminded that the world is a good place and that they possess the tools to contribute positively to any relationship, any situation. And while these beliefs often made me feel like a delusional tree hugger at family gatherings, I occasionally had conversations with fellow school moms that felt like a step too far into Fairy Land, even for me. Although not the most blatant example, I remember once being in line at a school potluck with a few moms, logging our grievances with our respective kids when the subject of bedtime came up. We all commiserated with an exhausted mom and assured her that our kids were experiencing the usual holiday-related sleep issues. Too much excitement, too many breaks in our routine, too many cookies - I now know to count on a couple rough weeks around Christmas and ride them out with a steady diet of coffee, powdered sugar and green juice. But this mom was insistent that this was something else. Something bigger. As we started to run down the list of solutions, "lavender spray? shorter nap? more time outside? warm bath? wool jammies and a sound machine?" she shook her head. No, she'd tried many of those but she then told us that she wasn't too concerned because she had said a prayer to her daughter's angel. Hmmmm. As someone who is, to my core, a pragmatist, this sounded wistful at best. She elaborated about how she had used this tactic in the past, for a myriad of issues and that it had always worked. Now I knew how all the great aunts felt when I talked about child-led weaning! 

I don't remember at which low point the conversation came back to me (there have been many over the years!) but at some point, in a moment of desperation, I chose to call our own angels off the bench and put them to work. Instead of speaking to them in prayer, I chose to write them a letter. The letters were short but incredibly specific. I spoke to them about difficult decisions we faced, about the helplessness of a particular phase someone was going through...about the uncertainty I often felt when faced with real adult problems. Did the problems magically go away? No. Did it "work"? Yes. It did. In those times, when I felt like I had been beating my head against a wall and exhausted every possible option, my need to do something, anything, won out and pushed me into action. And at some point not long after, the knots seemed to unravel and a solution of some sort presented itself. 

Although it had been awhile since I'd done this, I recently had the perfect problems for the angels to sort out; after deciding to head back to work with a more regular schedule, I knew I needed a regular nanny for our 3-year-old, Indy. He is the most mom-attached out of all three boys and any whisper of a sitter coming in has, in the past, brought on tears, hysteria, dread and guilt. So much guilt. To the point where I decided that it may not be worth it at all to even start looking and instead limped through for a few more months. Eventually I started to see that my need for autonomy and his need to be with someone other than me were tied and mutually beneficial. There was no way I could take on more projects and maintain my sanity while having him with me all the time. And the longer we waited to get him used to the idea of a regular caregiver, the more attached he would become, continuing to make our date nights start on a note of trauma and sadness and making it that much more challenging when he heads off to pre-school next year. It was time, so I started looking. I wrote the ad with all the details about hours/days/expectations but also stressed that I wanted someone fun, engaging, active and present. As responses started to come in nothing felt quite right. I realized that my own uneasiness was contributing to the problem and I sat down to write the description of the person I really wanted to my son's angel. On behalf of all of us. I wrote about how I wanted someone who felt that children had an integral part in their own life, who loved the outdoors and would be a fellow adventurer for our son in the times when I was working. Someone who he would run to greet each day, rather than hiding behind a chair or clinging to me and shaking with fear. A person we could welcome into our home and lives who wouldn't judge if they showed up to a cluttered porch or an overflowing pile of laundry. Who would be flexible and understanding if I needed to change the schedule and who I would happily do the same for. I wanted someone who would ease him into time spent away from me, and look forward to spending time with him, who would look at him, smiling, with love in their eyes. Sound corny? Maybe. But isn't that what we all want in a caregiver? It's the kind of job description you cannot go around posting. It's a bit heavy-handed BUT it is exactly what I wanted and I vowed that I would keep looking and not settle until I found this person. Guess what? I got my unicorn. The person who now spends whole days with my little Indy and occasionally our older boys is all of those things and more. Paying her each week is money I happily spend each time I see that sweet little face light up when I tell him she's coming over. 

I've met many people who regularly call on their angels to help take away the burden of a heavy problem and most recently saw that Kate Northrup, money and lifestyle mentor, called on her daughter's angels to help with the dreaded baby sleep deprivation that had sparked this idea for me all those years ago. You can read more about her method here. 

Although I've always kept my letters in a diary style, I like the formality of her approach and I especially like the added touch of burning them. Partly because it is incredibly cleansing and partly because there is a satisfaction unlike any other when you get to set something on fire. 

So, what do you think? Too out there? Just the solution you've been looking for? Swear by it? I want to hear! Tell me your experience in the comments below! 

Women in the Material World

A couple years ago we took a trip to Oregon, tagging along with my husband for work. We spent beautiful, mild days traipsing through Portland, a break in the rain that leaves you asking yourself, "Can the rain really make it that draining in winter?" By the end of our week I decided that I could definitely be a diehard Pacific Northwesterner if my job was to drink coffee and read all day. I'd have to forego annoying things like picking up kids, going to get groceries and pulling weeds. Curling up with a book and a warm mug from the list of coffee shops I'd frequent would be my only responsibilities. Sounds nice, doesn't it? 

We made several trips to Powell's that week because one stop is just not enough. On a visit where the kids were engrossed in choosing their new books (our standard offering for a trip souvenir), I started chatting with a lovely employee. We'd recently read a lot of the same things and had similar taste in fiction and non-fiction. It was like the start of a really awesome blind date. Somehow we came around to anthropology and women and before I knew it she shoved this book into my hands and ordered me to read it. I'm so grateful she did. 

This book is exactly what you'd expect to find, but done so with just the right blend of objectivity and compassion. If these pages look familiar you may have seen the authors' original book, Material World: A Global Family Portrait. This time they've gone back to many of those original families to see what life is like, day to day, for the women and their families. Although the floors and food and clothes may seem different, the interviews will instantly shrink your world view to realize how similar, how interconnected we all actually are. I found myself nodding silently when one woman lamented the difficulty of balancing home and children without letting herself slip away, lost to the demands of those jobs completely. And I could have thrown out an, "Amen, Sister!" when another laughingly shook off the notion of equality when it comes to household chores (my husband is a gem, who is off fixing our garbage disposal as I write this, but when that man puts away dishes it's like an April Fool's joke). Restlessness, anxiety, joy, fear, it's all there in every country, on every continent. "Should I go back to work? Do I want to go back to school? Can I go back to school? Did I say the right thing? Should I have done that differently?" 

Carmen in Mexico cleans while the kids are at school, a particularly futile sounding chore when you consider that they live on a dirt street. She left school at age 12 because her father said they didn't have money for her to continue. Now she'd like to take sewing lessons to eventually bring in money for her family, but her husband says it's not financially possible. 

When Sayo, from Japan, is asked, "Is marriage what you expected?" Her response: "No, no. I thought it would be much merrier and happier. [Laughs] At one point I wanted us to have the same interests - to go to art galleries. I wanted him to go with me, but he was not interested, so we do not have any activities to do together. And my husband, he maybe feels the same way..." I found this story especially interesting because Sayo's favorite childhood chore was helping in her mother's midwifery practice and the woman she most admires is Catherine Deneuve. Oh but for thousands of miles we'd be off to the museum, chatting about births and quoting our favorite lines from Belle de Jour

Thumb through the pages visiting Thailand, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Ethiopia, China, Mongolia, South Africa, Israel, Japan, Russia, Italy and take comfort knowing that all over the world piles of laundry are threatening to topple, kids are asking for one last drink of water and toilet seats are left up. 

Women in the Material World by Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel

Blogger for Hire: Sponsored Content With a Purpose

"Partnering with, collaborating, sponsored by, brand ambassador, influencer, #ad." Look familiar? If you have even one blog that you follow regularly or spend any time on social media you've likely noticed that sponsored content and "freebies" are as ubiquitous as selfies and babies napping with animals. Whatever the subject matter, there are brands that are anxious to tap into a blog's readership or follower base and use them for marketing. Bloggers and page owners have become a powerful tool to bring goods to those who may purchase them based on the recommendation (or the beautiful photo) that the "influencer" gives. 

I don't really remember when I started seeing this happen but I can't think of many blogs I read or instagram accounts I follow that don't partner with brands in some way to bring sponsored content to viewers. And regardless of what the influencer is selling, I have to believe that the decision to work with brands was born out of the best of intentions. Fewer banner ads or no banner ads at all? Who doesn't like the sound of that? Having a way to tell your readers what products you're loving without getting a flurry of DMs asking about your dishes/couch/shoes and getting the product for free while also being paid by the brand? It makes a lot of sense. But it's a very slippery slope and when done too often or not done well, it shows. According to this CMO article from 2016, 54% of consumers don't trust sponsored content. Who doesn't feel annoyed when yet another account pulls out the thinly veiled, "Such a busy day, no time to think about dinner but then I came home to my (insert box food delivery service name here) and the day was saved! Enter this coupon code for 3 free boxes!" Brands are able to use these unique discount codes to track the return on their investment and gauge demographics. 

Even though I've found some of these posts to be helpful, I've also found it to be incredibly frustrating, especially when overuse makes me question a site's integrity. As the success of such partnerships has grown, so has the price tag of the items; exotic vacations, mattresses and appliances are all now commonplace in the world of paid content. Over the years I've found it incredibly disheartening, especially when building a site that I knew would focus largely on collaborations with other artists and companies whose missions I truly believe in. Surely there must be a better way, a way to make the partnership a benefit to everyone, including communities who would never see the post or purchase the product. After thinking a lot about how to do this in a way that felt transparent and sustainable, this is what I came up with: 

Any time The Raisin Girls hosts paid content or works with a brand where product is exchanged, a portion of that product's monetary value will be donated to a corresponding not for profit organization that's doing great work. So for example, if we get sent $100 in food for recipe development, I'll donate cash to Project Angel Heart, a long standing group here in Denver that delivers meals to those in the process of fighting serious illness. Clothing or home items? If I keep them and use them, I'll be donating to The Gathering Place, a drop-in day facility for women in transition. If a blogger is sent items that they will truly use, then it stands to reason that they are saving money by not having to purchase the item, right? So why not donate a portion of what would have been spent? Operating in this way also ensures integrity in the items we are willing to promote - if I don't love something enough to be willing to make a donation on it's behalf I would never accept it. 

If your math level is anything beyond 4th grade you can see that initially, this is a terrible business model BUT what could be more motivating than knowing that every partnership with a great company means introducing beneficiaries into the equation outside of brand and blogger. Donations will be made every December and posted here and all paid content will have a footnote to let readers know what organization will be benefitting from the partnership. Know of other bloggers who are using their platform to help others? Comment below and we'll compile a list! 

Joan Didion

Like many of her fans, I was excited to hear about the release of a Netflix documentary chronicling the life of Joan Didion and quickly blocked off the release date in my calendar. 

My first memories of Joan Didion and her writing were early on - in a family of NOT readers, I loved that my maternal grandparents had a room in the home they'd built that was referred to as their "library." And that's exactly what it was - an entire room, with the best view in the center of the house with built-in bookcases made by my grandfather. The wood panel walls made the room cool and dark, even on the hottest summer days and even though much of their reading choices felt too stodgy and heavy for my taste, it was my favorite room to spend an entire day, nibbling on snacks, futzing with the record player and riffling through drawers of the desk they shared. 

Their collection was just as eclectic as their other interests; gardening, photography, Lady Di, cartography, mysteries. Occasionally I'd forego thumbing through the more interesting looking heavy volumes and pull a random, slim paperback from the shelves. I still remember the times that I grabbed one of Joan Didion's books. The covers did not interest me - too abstract, too drab but on many of the covers, there she was. Joan. She stared back, unflinching and intent, sometimes managing to be so with her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. In this staring contest, I always lost. This woman, so unlike any other that I knew, drew me in and over time I began to read the bios and eventually snippets of the books here and there. Even as a fourth grader determined to someday be a writer, I only had to do a quick assessment (fluorescent geometric sweatshirt with a spot of spray cheese, permed hair and paint splattered Cons) to come to the conclusion that not only would I never be a writer like Joan Didion, I would never be a woman like Joan Didion. 

In the years that followed I proved my premonition to be correct and I became what I can only describe as a Silly Girl. I belted out Whitney Houston songs with everything I had into my bedroom mirror, I stopped reading the rich, challenging books my grandparents had recommended in favor of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club, all full of simple plots and dialogue dripping with a heady combination of saccharine and banality. I passed notes and obsessed over aloof, uninteresting boys and essentially lost myself in a world isolated from reality. Even by junior high, when I was reading Didion's books as an aspiring writer I was definitely not thinking about emulating Joan Didion. 

By the time I popped up for air I was confronted with some starting realizations: although I had been vaguely aware of my transformation to a Silly Girl, my life was fraught with problems that were not funny at all. In the couple of years that followed I didn't really think much about meeting the writers and artists I had assumed I'd someday call colleagues or mentors and I now consider it one of the mind's greatest self-defense mechanisms, the psyche's version of adrenaline, to not allow me to consider what my ignorance and complacency had cost me. I no longer thought about what I'd say to Joan Didion, which would have amounted to something along the lines of, "I'm a huge fan! Three months ago I was an aspiring writer in my senior year on the Honor Roll, now I'm a drop out working in multiple coffee shops who occasionally has to sleep in my car." I don't think Joan would have been able to relate. It was easier to just keep moving in the direction I imagined to be vaguely "forward" and forget about what had almost been. 

In my early-twenties I was starting to defrost a bit and picked up someone else's dog-eared copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (my personal favorite) at a used book store. Mine had been abandoned somewhere along the way and I hadn't really thought of it until I'd spotted a copy tucked deep in the stacks. Muscle memory helped me flip right to "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" and it was just as I remembered it. Joan's voice came through resolute and trustworthy, her signature blend of curiosity and detachment coursing through each sentence. I found that trying to read the title selection, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," about San Francisco in 1967 sent a cold shiver down my spine. I was growing up, becoming empathetic, and the stories of others' misfortune, especially those involving children, struck a chord. I bought the book and was, once again, firmly under the spell of Joan Didion. 

From then on I wore my appreciation openly, commenting to boyfriends that I was a "Didion fan" when we passed her books and then, seeing their confused looks, went on to explain why she was significant, which selections I thought they would like best. I also found myself in the company of those who, upon learning that I was familiar with her work, gave a look of smug approval and I started to notice that those who bowed down at the altar of Joan Didion were often the kind of women who, unlike me, still held out hope of one day becoming her. And what, exactly, was it about her? Her coolness, both in the sense of style and temperament? Her intellect? Her ability to find the kind of juicy, dangerous material usually reserved for men? The way she could take her subject, roll it around in her hands like a jumbled Rubik's Cube then, just when you were sure she had no hope of solving it she would flatly pass it back to you, the mystery solved like neat little colored squares, all in a row. I think Joan answered the question best in an interview with New York Magazine when she said, "I don't lead a writer's life. And I think that can be a source of suspicion and irritation to some people." In the piece, Joan was speaking about her life's conventional core but I think she also leads a very non-scholarly life by way of it's apparent glamour. A simple Google search will turn up a treasure of photos of Joan (chin out slightly, eyes fixed right into yours, shoulders squared) that give the presence of a Hollywood icon, not someone with a pencil tucked behind her ear, ink stained fingers clacking away at a typewriter. If there's a photo of Bob Woodward perched on the hood of a Stingray, I've yet to see it. 

It wasn't until I read The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's book about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne and the illness of her daughter, Quintana, that I realized I had been reading Didion's work all wrong. I had started with her non-fiction pieces and when Joan commanded that we pay attention to what the subjects said (or didn't say), I obeyed. She ran us through the facts, she did her homework, she got to the bottom of the thing. And so I followed along in her detachment, looking only at what she put in front of me. I had so long ago dismissed being a fan girl of Joan Didion the person that I looked only at the final product, the work itself. And The Year of Magical Thinking was different. I read it as a wife and a mother, as a person who has already arrived where they are going, not someone on their way. I looked around at my own life and felt like any chance of soaking up some of her genius by osmosis was really, truly gone and I was suddenly the Silly Girl all over again because I hadn't realized I'd still been holding out hope. 

Once I saw Joan Didion as a person again, my assessment changed. I started to think more about what her actual life must have been like, the kinds of fights that can only be had between two creatives who share every aspect of their personal and professional lives in close quarters. The stress that parenthood can bring for any mother. The way that alcohol and excess can act as lighter fluid for tensions and hot temperaments. There may have been glamorous experiences, but no, there was no glamour.  

We asked Joan Didion to be the women who went into the room to get the story on our behalf. We asked that she ignore a lot of what went on, that she be unflappable, that she be detached and distant. And so she was all those things, even when the story was her own. So read Joan Didion's work whichever way suits you, as an appreciator of the writer or a fan of the woman because I can vouch that there is value in both. 

"To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves - there lies the great, singular power of self-respect." - Joan Didion


Suggested Reading:

When Everything Changes by Jonathan Van Meter, NY Mag
Didion & Dunne: The Rewards of a Literary Marriage by Leslie Garis, The New York Times
How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend by Lili Anolik, Vanity Fair
Joan Didion Is Ready for Her Close-Up by Dana Spiotta, Vogue


Image credits:
The Year of Magical Thinking
Brigitte Lacombe
Irving Penn
Julian Wasser



Books to Read When Life Gets Sketchy

We all have them, those things that we can count on to inspire and anchor us year in and year out. When the going gets tough we instinctively reach for them like a tattered security blanket and pull them tightly around our shoulders, waiting out the storm. Remember that scene from The Neverending Story movie when Bastian curls up in the attic to hide out and read, surrounded by candles and snacks? That is the comfort I speak of. 

I have a selection of books that I find myself returning to when things feel off-kilter or uncertain, each of them able to give me just the thing I need depending on the trouble or heartache of the time. Over the last year I've turned to my old reliables a lot, sometimes grabbing one as I head out the door to read a chapter or a few pages. Sometimes that's all it takes. Over the years some have gone out of rotation while new selections have found their way in and there are some books I read and reread to death as a kid that I cannot imagine picking up now (I'm looking at you, Alex: The Life of a Child and Tiger Eyes). I find it interesting that the stories of frailty and devastation that soothed me as a pre-teen and teenager are now the stuff of my worst motherly nightmares. 

1. The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr  - We are often quick to disregard the value of an excellent short story and this book reminds us not to do that. 

2. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett - Reading this book is like going in and out of a fever; you'll hold your breath, you'll cry, you'll sweat and when it's over you'll clumsily set it down then stumble around in a daze for a week. I have a friend who swears by the audiobook but I don't dare for fear of being stuck in my driveway unable to move for three or four days. 

3. The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank - Chicklit-esque? I mean, maybe? But also like having a friends older sister who you've idolized for years give you the dirt on what her glamorous-seeming life is really like. 

4. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - We live in time where oversimplification is the name of the game. It's possible that we can have lives that are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures but still have the same struggles. Don't believe me? Take it from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

5. Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain - Salacious and absurd, you'll be relieved to live in a simpler time of cigarettes, groupies, gigs and larger than life bandmates. 

6. Attack of the Theater People, Marc Acito - Sorry, for this one the audiobook is the only way to go. The first time I listened to it I was actually laughing so hard that I was crying and had to pull over on the side of the road. A concerned motorist pulled over and asked if I was okay. You've been warned! If you're looking to get a gift for a friend who has been feeling blue or just had a baby and in need of entertainment, this is the one. 

7. Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl - I love to know how the sausage is made, especially when it comes to the things we don't normally hear about, like how restaurant critics have to go to exceptional lengths to book reservations without being figured out. Another strong audiobook contender. 

8. Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel - Like veganism or crossfit, someone's love for this book usually finds it's way to the surface within the first five minutes of a conversation. You'll know you're dealing with good people and half the work of sussing them out is done, just like when someone tells you they grew up in Cleveland. 

9. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields - Way back in the day, when Oprah first started her book club, a dear friend and I would sit for hours outside our favorite coffee shop, seething at the choices of Her O-ness. "What is she thinking?!" we'd fume, certain that she must be a closeted conservative man, intent on keeping women diminished and oppressed. My favorite comment my friend ever made was the day someone saw the latest selection on our table and asked how it was. Without missing a beat Devron said, "How is it? I'll sum it up for you: the gist of this book is by the end the main character says, "Well my husband still beats me, just on Tuesdays and Thursdays." Oprah has since redeemed herself but geez some of those early titles were heavy handed. We always wanted to know why she never chose something from beloved writer Carol Shields, a national treasure who has since passed from breast cancer. 

10. Empire Falls, Richard Russo - Men like the ones in Richard Russo's books are truly a dying breed. Crusty and distant, we can all relate to the frustration of cracking the tough exterior of men from this era but it's so worth it. 

11. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell - What's that you say? You, too, have often dreamed of being part of a large, batshit crazy family in England? Well then look no further. This book will get you your fix and help make some sense of British history. 

12. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio - Originally published 15 years ago (2002) when feminism was on a latte break, Inga Muscio will explain some history, make your jaw drop and get you fired up. A quick, though provoking and highly entertaining read. 

13. Just Kids, Patti Smith - When this book came out in 2010 I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy but then, I just couldn't get into it. I tried several times but nothing. I wasn't ready for it. A couple years later I gave it another go and sure enough, it was everything I hoped it would be. All the questions I always thought I would ask her if I ever kidnapped her and held her captive in my cellar, she answered. It peeled away some of the layers of romanticism we often view the Warhol years through without losing the magic. Best read in the fall. 

14. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett - Hard to believe the story of Mary and Colin is over 100 years old and yet this book has managed to withstand the test of time. Hours and hours of adventures were inspired by this book, always determined to find a secret wall, a hidden note, a sick and howling playmate tucked away somewhere on our property. Sadly, no, but this book is a gift in itself. What I missed about this book until I wrote a paper on it were the HUGE nods to Christian Science. Interesting. 

Up and Back

There are certain things you can only truly appreciate with age; actual people manning the customer service phones, well lit restaurants, books with a slightly larger font...clichéd, yes, but appreciated. Not to be overlooked is the simple pleasure of easy friendships, the kind where adults and kids alike greet the news of a weekend away together with equal enthusiasm. A couple days crammed into a calendar where practices, school preparations and work obligations threaten to overtake every square, leaving us with the reminder that we're playing checkers all year long, just with a more worthy opponent from August to June.

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