Letting Wicked Stepmothers & Evil Queens Off the Hook

Last night, I finished Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. It’s a thought-provoking novel that uses an inverted tale of Snow White to tell of three women affected by America’s warped perception of race and beauty during the 1950’s. Honest yet fantastical, funny but probing, sparkling while simultaneously really freaking dark, the novel has profound things to say about race and self-esteem to be sure. But where it soared, for me anyway, was when it got to the truth of family relationships.

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Without giving anything away, the book plays a little game with the reader and makes you wonder who the “villain” of this bizarre fairytale actually is. Oyeyemi does a terrific job of presenting multi-dimensional characters all of whom are deeply flawed. Things get cray-cray in the end and a burst of compassion even rushed over me for the one character who seemed like the most clearcut villan of the book. It’s some good writing to be sure. But it’s also real life.

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Once upon a time my own story had an entitled little princess at the center of it.  Despite her own awful actions, the princess was convinced that the world was out to get her. And there were, consequently, some actual villains who had done awful things to our little princess. So to deal with the sordid and terrible hand life had dealt her, the princess snorted some enchanted powder of the magic mirror, guzzled down an evil potion (or forty) and lived under the spell that everyone else was the problem, not her. For a really long time. Like 20 years. Luckily, her spell, I mean my spell was broken 5 years-ago and now the only Evil Queen in my story is usually just me.

Thank god too. Living in a good guy/bad guy world, especially when it comes to my past is incredibly dangerous. Yesterday, the grandfather of magical realism and surely an influence on Oyeyemi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away at the age of 87. Marquez once profoundly said, ““What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” This punched me in the gut. Marquez is basically saying the victimization of our past is up to us and we have the power to tell our  bad memories to, well I’ll  let him explain it.

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In recovery, I’ve gone through a process of inventory to find my part in relationships where I have resentments.  I’ve done this process twice in my own sobriety and walked others through it on several occasions too. They wrote a great book about all of this stuff which certainly describes it better than I can but what I’ve learned is that even in the worst, darkest situations I’ve usually done something fucked up too. This process has freed my story from bad guys hell bent on destroying me.

The incredible thing is when I own my shit, everybody is let off the hook. This doesn’t mean I have to like everyone or hang out with them. And this is not easy. Forgiveness is punk rock. Compassion is a ninja skill. If these things were easy to hand out like starlight mints, I think we’d all do it all the time. “Sure have some compassion and while you’re at it take some forgiveness!” But they’re not. this shit is hard and takes a really long time. But for me, freeing my story of witches, evil queens and bad guys has been really worth it. Teachers who gave me shit for being a sissy, kids who beat me up, bosses who failed to see my brilliance– somehow I’ve let them all go and they don’t fuck with me anymore. That’s what I call magic.

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what I read & loved in 2013

You know what you probably haven’t read enough of? Year-end lists! I mean, what could be more compelling than reading what a random stranger loved or hated about an entire year? And yet here you are reading my year-end list. Thanks for that by the way.  I like my opinions like I like my coffee– strong and with no bullshit so hopefully list will be entertaining and if not maybe you’ll include it in your own list of “Top 10 Blogs that Bored You to Tears.” At any rate, 2013 was a banner year for me and reading.

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Books have been a lifelong romance of my mine but that doesn’t mean we’ve always been close. See when the better part of 20 years is spent reading the trashy magazines while slugging down tequila, finding the time to cuddle up to a novel is darn near impossible. But not so in 2013. After reading one too many blog posts with numbers in the title– 10 Reasons Why 90’s Kids Should Still Love PBS! 9 Hottest Styles For When You Don’t Care!, 8 Ways Buzzfeed Is Turning Your Brain into Cream O’ Wheat!— I decide to relight my book romance. From April to December, I read 23 books!( I know, I know. I even read alcoholically.) It’s safe to say me and books, like Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, are still very much in love.  While some of them challenged me and others disappointed, the majority of them were really fucking great. So without further and here are 7 books I read and really loved in 2013, in no particular order. Please note that while I read all of them in 2013, not all of them were released this year.

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey It’s fairy tale for grown ups. It’s a fable about loss. It’s a portrait of a frozen world touched by magic. It’s all these things and utterly unforgettable.

90 Days by Bill Clegg I’m picky when it comes to recovery memoirs. I think most recovery writers tend to focus on the drama part and not the whole getting better part and it frankly bores the shit out of me. But Bill Clegg strikes a perfect balance here and tells a concise and inspiration realistic tale of life in early recovery.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter I love old movies. I love Italy. And I love laughing my face off while reading so this book was as satisfying as a homemade pasta dinner. Walter is straight up brilliant and hilarious and the kind of writer I’d like to be when I grow up.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki An involving mystery, an ecological meditation, instructions on actual meditation, physics and biology lessons, and a diary written by a teenage girl you can’t help but fall in love with are just a few of the things Ruth Ozeki crams into this book. And somehow she makes it all work seamlessly into a novel I found to be at once heartbreaking, lovely and yes, timeless.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo Short of buying a case of this book and handing it out to people on the street, I can’t recommend We Need New Names enough. Harrowing, funny, insightful and written with real moxie, I couldn’t put it down this tale of a young girl from Zimbabwe. This book transcends that crappy “foreign person from troubled background” genre by doing something really special– writing without apology and with a truth everybody can identify with.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw These interwoven stories of modern Shanghai had me utterly captivated. Aw’s chatty, perceptive and smart insight into his characters is like a close friend giving you a behind the scenes look at a city torn between the future and the past. I set this book down and felt a little teary and sad which I consider a really good sign.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena I don’t know what else to say about this novel of war-torn Chechnya other than “wow.” This perhaps the best thing I read all year.  I don’t know if I’ll ever forget this book. It moved me. It scared the shit out of me. It broke my heart. It cracked me up. I love it so much and just want you to read so we can talk about it over coffee. Thanks.

As I plow my way through The Goldfinch (LOVING it) and have a zillion other books on queue, I think I’ll want to revise or add to this list but I’m confident in my choices plus there’s always 2014!

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Friends, what did you read and love in 2013? Fill my comments section with awesome book recommendations please! And Happy New Year!

Inspiration for August 20th: James Baldwin

“The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not had had ever, really, been present at his life.”
James Baldwin, Another Country

Hey writers and book lovers, if you want to be inspired, just go take a look at the best-seller list from August 19th 1962. William Faulkner, JD Salinger, Phillip Roth, Katherine Ann Porter, Irving Stone and this guy, James Baldwin, all populated the New York Times list. Nary a 50 Shades of whatever or trashy novel from a reality star in sight. Oh the good old days. Except 1962 wouldn’t be considered the good old days, I suppose. That year race riots continued across the country, Marilyn Monroe died and the Cuban missile crisis was in full swing.

So thank God for poetic troublemakers like James Baldwin. His book Another Country was a bestseller 50 years ago and for a black gay author in the early 1960’s that was groundbreaking indeed.  Another Country, like most of Baldwin’s work grappled with tough issues like sexuality, equality and suicide. Baldwin spent most of his life in Europe after feeling disenchanted by the racism and homophobia in the US. But continued to champion other writers and artists and collaborated with the likes of genius photographer Richard Avedon, cultural anthropologist Margret Mead and poet Nikki Giovanni. 

There’s a lot to take away from Baldwin, his works and his life. His legacy and artistry are a never-ending source of inspiration.  So the quote from Another Country seems like a good thing to meditate on today. As a recovering addict, being present for my own life is an ongoing challenge and a good thing to strive for on a Monday. Also, I want to embrace Baldwin’s collaborative spirit today. Adding to a creative project rather than dominating it is another great ideal to work towards today.

That’s enough out of me, kids. Enjoy your Monday. May it be an inspiring and collaborative one!

Inspiration for August 13th: The Monster at the End of this Book

Hello, everybodeee!

Today’s inspiration comes straight out of my childhood. The Monster at the End of the Book is one of those seminal, influential and eternally memorable books for me. Published as a Little Golden Book in 1971, the simple story tells the tale of our buddy Grover, resident of Sesame Street, superhero, waiter and all around awesome guy, who goes to great lengths to prevent us readers from turning the page because of a fabled scary monster to be found at the end of the book.  According to the book’s history, Sesame Street wanted to come up with a compelling way to show the littlest of readers how to read a book from beginning to end. I did not pick up on that as a kid.  I just thought this book was brilliant. First off, Grover was talking directly to you and as a big fan of all things Muppets, that was the best thing ever. Secondly, it was easy storytelling but comically suspenseful. It gave you permission to break the rules and turn the page, despite Grover’s pleading. But the best thing about the book was the ending! Spoiler alert:

 

Turns out the monster in question was just good old Grover himself!

For kids of the 70s and 80s this book has a kind of cult following. Just check out the GoodReads page for further proof. Folks even ponder the meaning of “being the monster” and that we the readers are the monster and the thing we are most afraid of.  Hmm. I’m not sure lovable, furry old Grover is that esoteric or contemplative. But there could be something to this. I seem to have moments all the time where what I’m afraid of is something I’ve created in my mind and the truth is not all that scary. And like our fuzzy, blue friend, I too go to great lengths to avoid seeing what’s really lurking at the “end of the book.”

But not today. Nope. On August 13th 2012, I’m going to enjoy turning the pages and accept  whatever is around the corner. Like everybody else on the planet, I have a lot of uncertainty in my life right now but I’ll never know what happens if let fear paralyze me. So here’s to getting to the proverbial end of the book and to embracing our monsters!