Reading Goals, Winter 2020

In January, I explained that one of my reading goals for the year is that at least 50% of my reading for the year will be by authors who are diverse in some way. 

Of the 21 books I’ve read so far, 11 are by diverse authors, and they are all fantastic. So I’m listing them in the order I read them. 

I know, I know: some of the romance titles are pretty bad. And maybe the covers are making your cringe. But all the books are amazing. Courtney Milan and Beverly Jenkins are two of my favorite writers, and it’s been a delight to read so many of their books in a run like this. Every one of their main characters are incredibly driven women, and their books and stories feel real, not contrived, in a way that’s really hard for a writer to consistently pull off. The conflict in Courtney Milan’s books usually revolve around a secret the main character is keeping for a good reason, as opposed to the frustrating misunderstandings that so often spark the tension in romances.

Beverly Jenkins’ main characters tend to be based on interesting black people in the Old West or New Orleans who she’s found amongst her extensive research. For example, in Breathless, the heroine’s family owns an early version of a dude ranch-themed resort that’s visited by European royalty as well as the wealthy from San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago. This resort is based on a real hotel owned by a real family in Arizona.

I just finished With Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo on audiobook (expertly read by the author), and it is incredible in every way. How Acevedo describes food—tastes and smells—made me hungry and also feel strangely competent about cooking, which I am not. Also, Acevedo so perfectly and vividly builds the Philly neighborhood in which the book is set that I wanted to sit down with a hard copy and comb through the sentences so I could figure out exactly how she did it. I adore the main character Emoni, who wants to be a chef, and her love for her Baby Girl and Abuela. Even now that the book is over, I’m rooting so hard for them all.

The End of Winter

On a recent Sunday morning, I was struggling. Struggling to get out of bed. Struggling to complete the tasks necessary to get ready for church. Struggling to look at the day ahead of me with anything but dread. Struggling to move. Struggling to talk. I felt profoundly tired, but the day before, I’d had a wonderful, bright day with friends, having lunch and seeing “Hello, Dolly” at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I wondered if I was dragging so much on this morning because I’d been so active the day before. But, I realized I’d taken naps several days that week. Feeling uncertain, I asked my husband if I seemed more tired than usual.

Tyler agreed that I did seem more tired. Then he said, “But this time of year is always hard on you.” That truth sank into my bones and sparked some vivacity for the first time that morning. I felt like I should have realized on my own that this stage of winter was most likely to blame for my recent struggles and lack of energy, but I hadn’t. And with those words, I understood the why to all my questions. I also understood that things would get better, as they tend to when spring returns. And that made facing the day less bleak. 

Then Tyler asked me if I wanted to go to church. I said yes. He got up, but I didn’t. He reached out a hand. When I took it, he literally helped me to stand.

I didn’t stop being tired. I didn’t stop dreading the two normal events for our Sundays. I’ve had worse bouts of depression—far worse. But that didn’t stop this from being a bad mental health day, as rainy a day inside my brain as outside.

Things were better in an hour or so. Not because I went to church (though I did). Not because I ate a magical breakfast (a banana and a dollop of peanut butter). Not because I prayed or meditated. Those things might have had a somewhat positive affect, but the core truth is that the weather in my brain just happened to get a little better. It might have swung the other way and I would have needed to ask Tyler to take me home after church instead of to lunch with his family. (This happened a couple times while we were dating and engaged.) But I did feel better. I could think more clearly. Standing up wasn’t so much of a struggle. Neither was talking. Nor being in another’s presence. (Tyler is excluded from that last part, presumably because my brain has decided that he and I are made of the same stuff, in a way literally no other person on the planet is.) 

I worry about what my life will be like later. If I’m able to have children, how will I handle a day like Sunday? My history of depression means I’m more likely to struggle with depression postpartum, during grief, and before menopause. And, of course, sometimes there aren’t particular, noticeable triggers for depression or anxiety. Sometimes it’s just weather. 

For now, I’m immensely grateful for my husband, who helps me stand when I’m struggling, and tells me it’s okay if I need to change our plans. 

The past few weeks, despite the amount of rain we’ve had, have been better. Still, I’m looking forward to spring. 

Winter Reading, 2019

I used to give a book 100 pages to win me over. Then 50. Now, if I’m not enjoying it after 30 pages, I put it down and leave it behind. I let myself quit reading when I’m not longer enjoying a story, either, even if the book or series is well underway. Last summer, I was in the middle of well-touted book beloved by several of my friends. I had been listening to it on Audiobook and I’d invested 5 hours in it. But I had 9 left to go and I wasn’t willing to give that time to that story. So I took it off my phone, bought another audiobook, and started listening to it instead.

Here are the books I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this winter:

The Veronica Speedwell series by Deanna Raybourn
A Curious Beginning
A Perilous Undertaking
Mystery, romance, young adult; so much fun!

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Memoir; adoptee searches for birth parents while she’s pregnant with her first child

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Creative living/writing guide

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
Romance; sequel/companion to The Wedding Date

A Quiet Life in the Country by T. E. Kinsey
Cozy mystery, historical, 2 middle-age spinster protagonists; fun romp!


And here are the books I’m looking forward to reading this spring when they are released:

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo
Fantasy, young adult; centers on my favorite character from the Shadow and Bone trilogy (which, with the Six of Crows series, is going to be a Netflix series!!!)

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
Historical, young adult; Beatles-loving protagonist with OCD tries to cross Kuala Lumpur during the 1969 race riots to find her mother

Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston
Fantasy, young adult; the same author who wrote the Star Wars book I pined for and dreamed of as a kid: Ahsoka; George Lucas did Padmé so wrong

The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey
Mystery, historical; sequel to one of my favorite books of last year: The Widows of Malabar Hill

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal
Fantasy, romance, young adult; opening line: “People lived because she killed. People died because he lived.”

A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn
The fourth book in the Veronica Speedwell series.

“My Winter Solstice”

To the tune of “My Favorite Things” by Rodgers & Hammerstein,
famously performed by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”

Red stripes on white mugs and antlers on Tahoes,
Bright glitter headgear and fresh trees with fake snow,
Brown Kroger bags hanging from both your wrists,
How are you doing on your shopping lists?

New Starbucks cups and gingerbread castles,
Black boots and gift cards and sweaters with tassels.
Winter solstice is the darkest of days.
Just four sleeps til Christmas. Let’s all dash away!

Friends in short sleeves with ugly socks jingling,
Rainclouds that hide how Orion is twinkling,
Fog that socks in while the river flows on.
Welcome to winter! Look at all the brown lawns!

When the sun sets, when the dark reigns,
When I’m feeling SADs,
I simply remember I could live in Maine,
And then I don’t feel so bad!

Winter is Coming (and I Don’t Want to be Depressed Again)

Last year around this time, I posted about my favorite fall and winter activities. A few months later, I posted about why my autumn hadn’t shaped up to be the favorite season it usually is. Nestled in there was an admission that I’ve spent much of the past year processing in theoretical and practical ways: I was depressed. I was also anxious, though it took longer to figure that out.

This year, I’m giving a lot of thought to the coming season, but without the excitement level of last year. My favorite things about fall and winter have always centered on light in darkness, but last year there was a lot of darkness in my mind (and, I would argue, in the world). As 2017’s days get shorter, I’m preparing in specific ways to give myself the best chance of making to spring without becoming suffering another depressive episode. (I think all 5 strategies are pretty solid ways to enter into the rest of this year.)

1. Simplify. I love knick knacks. Little things that spark a smile and look cool and remind me of fun times or people or characters or concepts. I’m just like my grandmother this way, who lined all her shelves with porcelain and glass figures, and kept them forever. But too much stuff, and things not being neat, stress me out. Not badly, but my mind needs room to consider, to breathe, to be creative. So I’m making space in my life and my schedule. At work, I’m putting resources I rarely need out of sight and rotating out my knick knacks so they aren’t all visible at once. If I feel anything but peace about something I’m asked to do, personally or professionally, I take a step back and reevaluate it. Why am I anxious or worried? Is this something I can say No to and feel at peace? Are their benefits that would outweigh these feelings? If I can’t say no, what’s most bothering me and how can I manage it to minimize my stress?

2. Clean out. A little over a week ago, I cleaned out my drawers and closet, filling two huge bags of clothes to donate to a local domestic violence shelter. Some items I’ve “outgrown” and others I just don’t wear often enough to keep. I’m keeping clothes I wear, not the ones I wish I did. That includes a beloved but too-worn pair of boots, a pleather jacket coming apart at the seams, and an incredibly comfortable pair of linen pants I never want to iron. I’ve been careful to buy fewer clothes than I’m giving away, and only very soft, very practical items. (Other than that one dress, but it’s practically got a cape!) Last year, I only wanted to wear soft, easy, warm clothes, and if that’s helpful to my brain when it’s struggling, it’ll be a better for mild seasonal blues, too.

3. Build good habits. I bought a light therapy box. I know I get a little down in the winter because my element is sunlight (it’s the most relatable thing about Superman, who I generally dislike). And, with shorter, darker days, I’ll need some extra help making sure my body is getting the sunshine it needs. Happy light to the rescue! … I hope! I need to build the habit of using it every day and in the right way. Only then can it do the good, darkness-dispelling work it was made to do. I also need to incorporate a better prayer and Bible reading regimen, which dispels darkness in a different, but equally real, way. Eating bigger breakfasts but fewer snacks are also on my habits-to-form list. And none of this will mean much if I don’t get enough regular, quality sleep. It truly is amazing how much I starve my body, little by little, of these two basic needs: nutrients and rest.

4. Take social media hiatuses. Presumably, an ideologically catastrophic event will not occur this Nov. 8 like it did last year, and so the most serious bout of depression I’ve ever experienced will probably not be triggered. However, accessing social media definitely contributed to my anxiety and depression last November and December, and I’ve noticed that I’ve struggled under its effects since then, too. I’m much better able to absorb terrible news at 11am or 2pm than right before bed or right after I get up. Also, some days are just worse than others, in terms of the type of news or what’s happening in my brain. A stormy mental health day needs a social media hiatus, especially from Twitter. Very terrible news might necessitate a break, too.

5. Choose manageable goals. I want to finish NaNo. I want to do it in order to recapture the joy participating in NaNo has brought me in years past and to help jumpstart my fiction writing life again. I managed to complete the 50,000 word goal last November while depressed, so I’m reasonably confident that I can do it again this year. However, I’m doing this for the experience, not the product, so I’m going to be looser with the rules than in the past: I’ll count blog writing in my word counts and won’t restrict myself to one project. I might rewrite my NaNo project from two years ago (cozy murder mystery with ghosts) or I might try a new idea I’ve been kicking around since the summer (also a cozy mystery). If one project fails on me, I’m planning to just pick up the next one and keep writing. Finishing NaNo requires prep work, like making and freezing meals ahead of time and making lists of scenes and characters and basic plot structures. For me, it also means planning well for the days I’ll need to be traveling and scheduling specific rest times throughout the month.

I don’t want to end with something cheesy like “Stay positive!” but if there is a 6th strategy, that’s it. I’m looking forward to Hallmark Christmas movies, chili, snuggling under blankets, candles, a fire in the fireplace, Christmas trees, crisp air, apple pie with ice cream, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

If you also tend to have more mental health struggles in fall and winter, I’d love to hear how you’re preparing for the next few months!

Reflecting on Autumn

On the Fall Equinox, I shared some of the things I was most looking forward to this season: hot chocolate, bonfires, holidays, NaNo, crisp skies, candles, chili, peace on Earth and goodwill toward one another.

Well, things haven’t really gone that way. This autumn was dominated by:
-the election of Trump;
-the bombardment of Aleppo;
-the stand against the North Dakota Pipeline;
-a bout of mild depression;
-a lack of enthusiasm about my NaNo project, catching up with friends, cleaning, cooking, or almost anything (see “depression”);
-a vicious cold that sequestered me in bed for 3 straight days and a string of migraines; 
-over 70 days without rain, necessitating a burn ban (no bonfires) and shriveling leaves, making them drop sooner;
-wildfires that destroyed thousands of acres and hundreds of homes, killed countless animals and half a dozen people, and clogged the sky with smoke;
-very warm weather marked by cold fronts that dropped the temperature by 20-40 degrees in a single day;
-porch renovations I’m excited about but that make the backyard look and smell like a construction site;
-the dog’s thievery and shedding, which have made me unwilling to crochet.

As a result, I haven’t spent my time in the ways I expected. I can’t fully explained why the election bottomed out my personal motivation or if that mild bout of depression was a coincidence. But my autumn has largely consisted of reading, donating money, writing letters to my congressmen, calling those congressmen, signing petitions, debriefing with friends, and creating talking points in case an argument breaks out at a family gathering. I’ve been inside more than normal, from smoke to construction to illness. I’ve had almost no motivation to publish, even as a long-term goal. I’ve struggled to pray. I traveled every weekend of November and most of them in December, only attending church twice.

For comfort, I started listening to Christmas music two days before the election and started watching Christmas movies one day before (which was also my birthday). I mostly listened to unusual holiday songs so that, when I grew tired of them, I could move to the more traditional songs and carols. With 4 days left, I’m still happily singing along in the car.

I didn’t finish decorating until the 15th because of low energy, but I did almost all my Christmas shopping online for the same reason, so I was done earlier than ever, with ten days left until Christmas. (Though so far I’ve only wrapped the dog’s present.) 

I’ve seen my family much more often than usual, which is a definite bonus. My parents bought me a new laptop I’ve yet to transfer my files to and assembled new bookshelves for me, opening a host of new organization possibilities. I took a fantastic vacation in October with my best friend and read some excellent books.

I am still deeply afraid of what will happen next month, next year, and the years to come. I know that, being pretty neurotypical and very privileged, I have hardly suffered. But on this, the shortest day of 2016, I am hoping this is the turning point for more light and better health. This is my wish and prayer for the world, as well as for myself.

4 Favorite Things: Fall Equinox

When I woke this morning, I plodded through the chilly house with my hair draped over my shoulders like a blanket, a sure indication that the world is winding down for the year. The first leaves are suggesting a yellow hue, the days are shortening, Orion is creeping near the horizon, and I see that the world is beginning to draw into itself.

I could make a good argument that I love every season, but I am especially partial to autumn. And Thursday is the fall equinox.

What a great word: equinox. The word makes me think of both breaking and linking. According to the rules of Harry Potter spells, it sounds like it should mean “equal night,” or “equal put-out-your-wand-Harry-Snape’s-coming”, which isn’t too far from the truth. (Okay, the first one isn’t too far from the truth.) Equinoxes occur, spring and fall, when the day and night are approximately equal to one another. It’s a division of the 24 hour day into approximately 12 hours of light and 12 of dark, and of the year into 6 months of more daylight than night and 6 months of more darkness than day. This is true all over the world. Breaking, and linking.

To celebrate the fall equinox, I’m talking about a few of my favorite fall and winter things. Despite my excitement, though, I recognize that the next six months will be very difficult for many people, and I’m going to try to acknowledge that as I go.

1. Coziness. Let’s be clear, I am absolutely a sun baby. I need sunlight to be well. If I had magic, I’d absorb it from the sun’s rays. Superman and I don’t get along (let’s not get into that right now), but you may well know that the source of his strength is our yellow sun. And on this point, at least, I relate. I have repeatedly forgone moving into my own office at work in order to stay in a communal room that boasts a wall of windows. But I love peppermint hot chocolate, bright stars, crisp air, hearty soups, piles of blankets, softly glowing embers, and the shedding of layers to signal you’re staying. I enjoy nothing more than crocheting by firelight, reading beneath a blanket, ladling a bowl of chili for the person hanging her coat and scarf by the door.

I’m pretty neurotypical, so the lack of sunlight and increase in darkness affects me on a fairly typical spectrum. I more often feel down. I’m more lethargic. I’m prone to walking outside and just standing there, eyes shut, face turned up like a sunflower. However, for many of my friends with depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses, winter is hellacious. For them, the fall equinox heralds the galloping approach of winter’s hot-breathed beasts. Plus, I hear the white walkers are coming.

2. Holidays. This one is about time, rest, and (re)connection. The next few months are stacked with my favorite holidays. The normal ones, but also my birthday and Guy Fawkes Day and Twelfth Night. Until the spring equinox, I get to spend a few days off of work here and there with the people I love the most, but who I maybe have neglected to call as often as I should have. Traditions reemerge from the woodwork and we all act as silly as we did two decades ago. New traditions and new family members get folded into these. I’m able to sit and look out the window. I’m able to read, nap, and daydream. Yes, the flurry of present-buying is ridiculous and harrowing and stressful. Yes, the stores decorate far too early. But the holidays themselves are awash in peace for me (as long as everyone ignores to my grandfather’s political statements).

For me as a Christian, the fall and winter are incredibly important renewal times for my faith. Maybe Lent and Easter should be, theologically speaking, but my childhood mentors and teachers and churches barely mentioned Lent. I’m still a bit iffy on what it’s supposed to be doing to me or I in it. But Advent, though far more complex than I learned of in childhood, is my time to evaluate my relationship status with God. And, as cliché as that sounds, I often move from “it’s complicated” or “mute” to unironic heart emojis or a gif of shaking hands. Not every year. And honest change is so much harder as an adult than it was as a kid, but it’s a chance to try. It’s a reminder to stop, to lay down, to wonder, to ask God questions.

I’m blessed with a wonderful home and family life. I have no large traumas or deaths in my past which make the span of time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s dreaded and endured rather than anticipated and enjoyed. However, I know so many people who just want to survive these holidays. Which is why I don’t accuse people of hating happiness if they don’t like snow-laden music or the plethora of holiday-themed movies and greetings. I have friends who feel attacked every holiday spent with family and can’t wait to get away again. I have friends for whom this optimism-heavy and Christian-centric season is annoying at best and oppressive at worst.

3. Nostalgia. Yes, the holidays are full of nostalgia thanks to traditions and films and once-a-year cookie recipes, but each day where I’m crunching leaves underfoot or wearing my favorite pair of tights is a call back to times that were meaningful or formative to me. Or just fun.

When was the last time the sky was this blue?

I remember that time I wore my mom’s old Dingo boots and my favorite leather jacket to stomp leaves in the back yard.

I used to sit on a stool in front of the stove and watch these cookies bake.

One year when my choir sang at a Christmas festival, it was so cold that our collective frozen breath made it hard to see the crowd.

I remember the New Year’s Eve bonfire two years ago when someone decided the first song of the year should be “Danger Zone.”

For the same reasons as with number 2, I know that many people struggle to enjoy, or just endure, the coming season. It will be hard for many people to remember happier times, either because they occurred before a deeply painful event or because they didn’t have many happy times. For my friends who aren’t Christians, it will be hard to hear “Merry Christmas” multiple times a day, and many will face hostility if they don’t say it back.

4. Darkness. I don’t like that the entirety of my sunlit hours are spent at work or that, on my lunch break, I must decide whether to sit inside where it’s warm or in my sunlit, but frigid, car. I don’t like that I don’t feel safe running after work because the world closes in on night so quickly. I rail about waking up in the dark and racing to do my errands and get home before the sun sets. And yet, candles. And yet, s’mores in the fireplace. And yet, twinkle lights. And yet, fireworks. And yet, bonfires. And yet, hours of stillness in which to write. NaNoWriMo is when I set my big project aside, whatever it is and whatever I’ve been doing to it, and throw myself into something new. I spend November, my favorite month of the year, engaged in my favorite part of the writing process: drafting. I create something new. I get up in the darkness, wrap myself in a blanket, and write until I absolutely, no really, have to get up and get dressed for work. The darkness cocoons, though it limits, and the lights are more profound in its midst.

I hope the lights ahead will be plentiful enough and bright enough to help you endure the coming darkness. Plus pumpkin spice everything. I bequeath you my share. I’ll keep to the peppermint syrup and my hot chocolate.