Do No Harm–It’s My First Rule of Bookselling

The other day, this lovely young woman came in to the bookstore and asked if we had any Christian books.

Ahem.

It was kind of awkward… because we have a spirituality section. But let’s just stay it leans heavily toward Buddhism, general spiritual pursuits (mindfulness, crystals, auras), and witchcraft. We do have a few Christian books. But they’re ones folks happened to donate. Which is to say, it’s certainly not a well-curated selection.

And, unexpectedly, as I was looking at this rather earnest young woman, I felt really bad about that.

My dance with Christianity has been long and storied. And, let’s suffice it to say that I have closed the chapter on that part of my spiritual journey. But, as often happens when you’re grieving a loss (and finally understanding that your childhood religion will no longer work for you–that it’s actually causing you great harm–is a loss), I got angry. Like, real, real angry.

So much so that I haven’t been able to not be angry when the topic of Christianity comes up. Which is problematic for several reasons:

  1. I don’t want to be an angry person. For real. I appreciate anger. I think it can be cleansing and empowering. But then, something shifts and it begins to erode joy. To increase negativity. To make you into one of those people who can only identify what they don’t like, what they have a problem with, what is wrong with things. Those people are an energetic drag, and I have no desire to be one of them. But that’s totally what happens if anger hangs around past its expiration date.
  2. 65% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. So, you know, it comes up often.
  3. That young woman who came in the store? I would never want to make her think that I believe her spiritual beliefs are somehow less than. That’s gross. Also, some of the people I most admire identify themselves as Christians.

All of this adds up to… you guessed it…

Time to let that shit go.

Letting go of anger on a personal level is one thing. But, also, as a liberal, queer bookseller, one of my biggest caveats is to carry books that will do no harm. Especially to the queer folks that walk up in here trusting me because they see that big Pride flag in the window & feel like this is a safe space.

So, I feel like I have to vet every Christian book that comes in here. But, again, that’s problematic, because that is not a healthy space for me. And … where would I even find time to do that?!?

See the problem?

But it is on my heart (you can take the girl out of youth group, but you can’t take youth group out of the girl) to offer folks of all spiritual stripes books that will nourish their souls and cause no harm. It’s also become apparent to me that this is the first step in letting go of anger that is no longer serving me.

So, I’d love to hear what y’all have read that falls into the Christian or Christian-adjacent category written by authors who celebrate the LGBTQ community (not just tolerate it).

P.S. I just need to take a minute and let y’all know that I’m 100% in love with Nadia Bolz-Weber. I read her Sunday Morning Prayers every week, and they break open my heart in beautiful ways. If you haven’t checked her out, she’s worth your time no matter what your faith tradition.

Her Timing is Always a Mystery

Parenting is largely intuitive.

Right?

Or am I doing it wrong?

Because this really feels, for the most part, like a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor.

It’s not so much the “where do babies come from?” conversations… those big ones are expected. You kind of get to plan for those. And, honestly, for us that one was easy… Jane came to be in a very skilled fertility doctor’s office. In fact, she knows her origin story so well, we had to go ahead & speed up the talk about the way that many cis/het folks procreate before she started telling her friends with authority that babies were made in the doctor’s office (with a mobile of white Christmas lights above the examination table, for ambiance).

But then there are the conversations that happen as you’re driving to, say, the chiropractor on a random Monday afternoon.

“Mommy, can drinking kill you?” There she was, sat in the back seat looking super-interested in the answer to this question.

But it’s nuanced, you see. Because I’m in recovery. So, yeah, drinking could totally kill me. But I also know that the way I respond to things either provides her something to push back against (and that girl is the queen of push back) or something to think about. Depending on how I handle it.

So, I followed the instructions I keep getting (over and over again) from the Universe… I trusted my intuition.

And I was straight-up honest.

I told her how I got in trouble drinking (read: I hated myself & wanted to escape that feeling). I told her that many folks drink safely. And that she could choose to drink (or not!) when she got old enough. But you can believe that I put a plug in for sobriety being a valid life choice, whether you “have to” be sober or not. We also talked about what happens when you drink too much (acting a fool, blackouts, headaches, puke-fests).

None of this conversation was entirely foreign to her. When you’ve got a parent in long-term recovery, you occasionally bump into a drunkalog story along the way. Because it’s easier to point to what NOT to do with humor than with haranguing lectures.

I remember sitting in an AA meeting and hearing a woman in recovery declare (forcefully) that her child would never drink (as in not ever take a sip of alcohol). I thought that was a foolish premise then. Now that I have a child, I know how truly absurd that idea is.

Jane will drink. She’ll try it at least. And that’s what I acknowledged in our little car chat yesterday afternoon: she’ll make mistakes when it comes to alcohol. And she’ll regroup and make (better) decisions from there.

Not everything has to be black and white. I don’t need the kid declaring herself a teetotaler at (not quite) 10 years old. But I do want her to know that sometimes drinking is kicking back and having a beer on the beach with friends. Sometimes it is … so very NOT.

And that’s the truth for me. She’ll find her truth.

But, as is true with so many other things, she’ll only make good choices about alcohol if she’s at peace with who she is, if knows how to love herself.

And it’s that lesson that I hope really sticks.

My explanation for most things: Because I’m a Virgo.

During the chaos that is our morning coffee time (seriously, the dog’s running about, the kid’s doing some crazy chicken imitation, I’m hyped up on caffeine… it’s utter mayhem), Simon mentioned that I can sometimes be intimidating.

I laughed.

Because, hello… obviously, I’m the least intimidating person in the world. I’m like a muppet: overly enthusiastic and always zeroing in for a hug.

Except maybe I’m not like that at all. That’s how I see myself. But maybe that’s not the way other people see me.

And that sent me into a minor existential tailspin.

Because who am I really?!

To be fair, this concept isn’t entirely new to me. I picked up somewhere (back in Psych 101 in college, maybe) that our perception of ourselves changes long after we have. So, the way I see myself could be outdated. Or maybe my self-perception reflects my own interiority–not the way I exist in the outside world.

Or maybe I made the whole thing up.

It’s a bit unsettling that we can never really know what other people think of us. Not fully, anyway. Let’s just say I was surprised when Simon clued me in on what other people read from me.

I’m leaning into curiosity right now. And the unknowable. This kind of amorphous nature of how I’m viewed in the world feels unsettling. But right, too. Like maybe my task is to be in this moment, to look for magic, to experience all that is there… and not to worry so much what other people are doing or seeing.

My horoscope keeps nudging me toward full, radical acceptance of other people just as they are. Towards a celebration of every unique soul–my own included.

The word on the street is that outwardly I seem to make decisions without giving a flying fuck about how others see them. Which is funny, because (on the inside) nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one of my intentions for 2021 was to let go of what other folks think so I can make decisions that are life-affirming and right for me–instead of being paralyzed by the fear of what other people might think.

I’ve got my eye on letting go of my preconceived notions (about everything) and embracing wonder. Today’s horoscope had 2 nuggets for me that I’m turning over and over in my mind:

  1. If you want to sharpen your capacity to make independent decisions, experiment with larger truths. I’m still parsing what this means specifically in my little orbit, but the concept makes me feel expansive (literally, in my chest). And that’s always a good thing for me (I can be a bit dogmatic. I’m a Virgo. It happens) I also doubt the larger truths have much to do with micromanaging how each person views the way I navigate my life.
  2. One of the most harmful things humans do is deny the reality of each other’s existence. I am incredibly sensitive. But that doesn’t always translate to tenderness. Because tenderness requires not always believing that MY answers are the right answers for everyone (again, Virgo), acknowledging the vastness fo the human experience, and meeting folks where they are with love. Radical, accepting love.

I’m a bit adrift, in orbit over here… you know, experimenting with the larger truths. So, flag me down if you need anything. Promise I’ll try not to intimidate you.

Beginnings (Happy 2021!)

Beginnings. They’re so full of possibility.

None of those bothersome details to work out. No negative feelings or pesky loose ends that tend to crop up when things get real.

Beginnings are all magic.

When I hung around AA, they were fond of saying “wherever you go, there you are.” It’s been true for me. I’ve brought myself into every new beginning I’ve ever had. With mixed results.

This year, I’ve given myself to actively looking for magic in the everyday. But then, there I am, my very Virgo self telling me that surely I can’t write anything if I haven’t been writing every day since January 1st.

See what I’m up against?

But I’m learning to accept contradictions. And to embrace both what is and what could be. It’s an interesting place. There’s no solid ground here. Which is both terrifying and liberating.

For me, happiness is bound up in my spiritual journey. It’s a central part of who I am and how I move though the world. It’s taken an unexpected turn recently, but one that feels like home. We’ll see. It’s always a work-in-progress. But right now it feels open and spacious, like a place for discovery. And that’s particularly energizing for me.

I’ve also been thinking about my sobriety a lot lately. I’ve been sober for over a decade. But recently, I’ve taken more moments to realize where I’d be–and what I’d be missing–if I hadn’t gotten sober. Maybe that sounds grim. But, really, it just fills me with gratitude–to the Universe for providing me the opportunity to get sober and to myself for taking a chance on what could be (and for sticking to it).

At the bookstore, I spent the last week of 2020 and the first days fo 2021 crafting a reading challenge worthy of all the diverse talent that exists in the literary world. I examined copious book lists to pull together options that will push folks out of their comfortable reading niches and be wildly appealing. It was a extensive, time consuming project. But it’s one that I’m proud of. We’ll be rolling that out this week (currently, it’s in production with my amazing designer, who I happen to be married to). And this year, my reading choices will be largely dictated by the list I created. Trust me: keeping at TBR list in my head wasn’t going to cut it anymore. So, I just invited all my customers to join in.

Sometimes I am clever.

2021 has opened with a lot of joy and possibility for me. I’m grateful for that. I know not everyone is in the same place. I’m working hard to live into that possibility. And to be sensitive and compassionate to those who are struggling to find hope this year.

No matter where you are in your journey, or what you are bringing into 2021 with you, you are loved and valued by the Universe. You are worthy just as you are. Always.

The Nitty Gritty: Clap When You Land

I hugged this book when I finished it. I just couldn’t imagine putting the characters down & walking away from them.

I’m still not ready to let go…

Even if YA novels aren’t typically your thing, this deserves a read. It’s a novel written in verse, which is pretty damn cool to begin with. It’s both stripped bare & poetic. And it’s easy to float through…

And yet.

The themes aren’t simplistic at all. I think for teenagers just beginning to sort the complexities of family, this novel might be revelatory. For me, in my mid-forties with a child of my own and parents who are both complicated and aging, I found myself nodding my head often. Sympathetically clucking. Yes, yes. We are often disappointed in love and life. Yes, yes. There is pain. But there is also terrific joy and new beginnings. And life. In all its richness.

Elizabeth Acevado is immensely talented. Without any excess description to bog down her writing, she made me see the Dominican Republic so clearly. She neither romanticized nor disparaged the island. She rendered it real, beautiful, complicated–like a living being.

And I love Acevado for giving us a gay character in a YA novel where her being gay is entirely beside the point. This isn’t a novel about coming out. Or coming to grips with identity (not gay identity at least). This girl is just gay. Because folks are. And she lives her life. Because folks do. And it’s all so shockingly normal that it made me cry.

I was caught in this novel between remembering what it was like to be 17 and knowing that one day (sooner than I could imagine) my own baby will be 17. It’s kind of a beautiful, liminal space. And I found adults in this book that were complicated, yes. But sometimes powerful, sometimes vulnerable, and always deeply human.

It’s good y’all. Go read it.

The Nitty Gritty: Charm & Strange

I read the best books without having any idea why I really picked them up. In this case, the copy of Charm & Strange that I have at the store has library markings on it. For some reason, that makes it much harder to sell. So I grabbed it out of a pile of books I’d brought out to my front yard for the East Atlanta Strut-in-Place. Figured I’d read while I waited for folks to roll up and peruse the tent.

Except then I really didn’t want to put it down. At all.

It’s a YA book. And it won the American Library Association award for debut authors. And, y’all, it’s riveting. But it’s dark. Like, real dark.

It made me remember how stark the lies of adolescence can be–and how damning: that we aren’t enough, that we are flawed, broken, shameful. That the world would be better off if we didn’t exist–but at the very least we shouldn’t let people get close. Because they’ll loathe what that they see–probably wouldn’t be able to stand it–so to protect them and us, we shut everyone out.

Maybe that wasn’t your adolescence. But it was mine. And I wished I’d had a book like this to let me know that I wasn’t the only person that felt this way.

At many points in the book, you really have no idea what’s going on, or why it’s happening. Which drives you into a fever pitch of reading so you can figure out what the actual hell is happening/has happened to this 17 year old kid. Why does he make the decisions he does? Why is he bent on his own social destruction, his intense isolation?

Here are some things you should know: You do eventually figure out the whole dark, painful, twisted story. Nothing is rosy in this book but I felt like someone had opened a window & let in a stream of light at the end. But you have to be willing to engage in the journey to get there.

It was definitely worth the read. And I loved that the author trusted her YA readers with some intense social issues–and gave them the task of shifting the lies we tell ourselves when we are in pain from the objective truths that others can more easily bear witness to.

If the whole review is a little cryptic, it’s because I’m trying to preserve the mystery for you. But as a final note: there are some topics in this novel that will be triggering for some folks. If you’re concerned that may be you, please read a review that includes trigger warnings before picking this one up.

The Nitty Gritty: She’s Come Undone

I picked up Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone on a whim. A mass market paperback version was just laying about in the store, in a pile of used books I was sorting to shelve. They don’t really sell for us, those little block-like books, so I figured nobody’d be itching to buy it anyway. So I cracked it open Saturday at about 4pm. But Monday night at 8pm I was done.

And, yes, I read to the exclusion of most other things on Sunday and Monday. Because it was that good.

I found it relatable, then horrifying that I’d ever found it relatable. I wanted to save the protagonist. Then shake her. I cheered and cringed. Witnessed utter despair. And hope. And then the fear of hope.

The whole spectrum of human emotions. That’s what Wally Lamb served up. And I couldn’t look away.

At one point I found myself muttering an entire diatribe about the point of feminism under my breath… there was no one in the room with me. I just needed to say it out loud.

I kept thinking about freedom… and how it doesn’t always come about the way we think. And we’re not always trying to break free from the right things. Sometimes we’re our own captors.

This book has been tugging at my mind all day. I want desperately to talk about it with someone that’s read it. And that, for me, is usually the mark of a damn fine book.

Read this one.

The Nitty Gritty: Welcome to Braggsville

I’ll be upfront with you… I have aspirations of getting my PhD in Southern Literature. And, sure, there are lots of the Southern classics that I haven’t made my way through yet. But when I was looking at a syllabus for a graduate level Southern Lit class, I ran across Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. For whatever reason, it jumped out at me (it was probably at the top of the list of required texts). So I ordered it.

For Methuselah’s sake.

So, it’s billed as a dark comedy. And I get that. I do. But by the end, I was decidedly not amused.

It’s one of those novels where everything is cruising along… and one second later, things have gone real, real wrong. But all that is couched in a writing style full of asides and changes in point of view and a lack of clarity about who is talking when and is it out loud or are they musing over something or perhaps its a memory or a fantasy or OH MY GOD WHAT IS GOING ON?!?

The protagonist annoyed me as much as Holden Caulfield did (sorry Catcher in the Rye fans). Which meant that I wanted to throttle him so much I distanced myself from some of the themes that were hella important in this book: like the insidious and pervasive nature of racism–and how when you grow up breathing that madness in, it stays with you. Even when you think you’ve risen above it.

The author makes fun of Southern thinking regarding racism & the Civil War (you know, states’ rights and all). He lays bare the things we try so hard to overlook, Southern charm being what it is and all. And sure, you could get all “Not all Southerners” but that’s not the point.

The point is, well, pointing out what you mss when you love a place and are connected to it. When you’ve grown up and in certain ways of thinking. And those are the kind of thing we have to examine–even when it hurts–if we truly want to build a better South.

(As a side note, Johnson also has a REAL good time making fun of the academy. Which is, in fact, amusing. And horrifying. So, if you’ve spent any time in higher ed, you’ll laugh or cringe. Maybe both. You’ll have to read it to understand. Sorry. #nospoilers)

It took me a long time to read this one. I kept picking up other things to read. Because I really didn’t like it.

But do I think it’s an important book? One that belongs front and center on a Southern Lit syllabus?

Definitely.

The Nitty Gritty: The Yellow House

The pull to a specific place has occupied my thoughts for the better part of 5 years now. This idea of place as a piece of who we are is what drew me to Atlanta. This city called me until I could no longer ignore it. I had to be here, in a way that I couldn’t describe to most people.

Atlanta resonates through me–my whole being–even though I didn’t grow up here. It is home in a visceral sense. I am happy here because I belong in the very deepest sense of that word.

So, I’ve often wondered if other folks feel the same way about place–that it takes on a life of its own, shares space in our psyches. Consequently, this wondering brought me to both Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (by choice) and The Yellow House (completely unwittingly).

I knew 3 things about The Yellow House before I read it: it was a memoir; it won the National Book Award; and it centered on a family that lost their home in Hurricane Katrina.

I’ll tell you up front that I’ll try to avoid spoilers–and also that I’m not sure there are spoilers for this book. Because it isn’t so much what happens in Sarah M. Broom’s family or to the house they inhabit, but the lens through which she views it that makes the book.

The Yellow House both is and is not a Katrina book. For instance, if you read the fiction work Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward–THAT is a Katrina book. The whole narrative centers around the storm & its impacts. While the yellow house meets its ultimate demise in Katrina, the story begins decades before the storm… and continues afterward, because families and people continue on with or without the structures they’ve called home.

The book is more broadly about New Orleans. About what it’s like to grow up black and poor in a city that holds an almost magical sway over most of America. Broom weaves New Orleans history–including an analysis of the pervasive colorism in New Orleans–throughout her narrative. All while exploring the pull of this place that she grew up in. She leaves and returns to New Orleans, looking for something. But she’s never quite sure what. She’s pulled in particular back to New Orleans East, where she grew up–which has long been neglected by the city and devolves completely after Katrina decimates the infrastructure in a part of town even more flood prone than the rest of the city. The fate of New Orleans East is tragic and infuriating. But it’s fascinating and instructive to watch Broom navigate these complex emotional spaces. For me, there was something simultaneously intimately familiar and ultimately unknowable about her quest.

This book is going to leave you with more questions than you had when you started. Broom will wrap nothing up tidily for you. And, if you’re an introspective sort, she’ll have you picking at your own family history, your sense of place.

Ultimately, The Yellow House begs the question: What constructs us? Is it family? Place? Home? Ourselves?

I turned 45 this week. And I wonder if that has anything to do with the pull of this book for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about family and roles we play in our family of origin versus the self the we construct outside those bounds. And, for me, that also calls up the places I grew up (all over Florida with parents born in the Deep South) and the places I remained connected to throughout my childhood and now choose to claim (the South, Atlanta, and South Georgia). The Yellow House gave me footing to think about these things & introspect in a way that felt important and a little esoteric.

This book laid out for me issues of family, place, and self I’ve been pondering–and allowed me to see that there are no easy answers. That there are always more questions. And that they are worth asking.

The Nitty Gritty: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

I’ve been thinking a lot about place lately: how where we are from constructs who we are. And I’ve been drawn to books that explore place as internal landscape.

My mother’s family is from South Georgia. Although I grew up in Florida, I always considered myself a dis-placed Southerner. According to my Northern oriented friends, my dad talks like a banjo. Growing up, my mother insisted we say “sir” and “ma’am” to adults, which most adults in South Florida found wildly unnecessary and sometimes offensive.

We didn’t fit there. And I knew it.

I moved up to North Florida as soon as I was free to do so (four days after high school graduation). If you’ve never been to North Florida, it’s really just an extension of South Georgia.

And there, I felt at home.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is an in-depth exploration of the South Georgia landscape of my mother’s people. A place I visited multiple times as a child. The place we buried my grandfather not too long ago.

Author Janisse Ray explores not only what it was to grow up poor and deeply religious in the rural South, but she also details–with shockingly clear imagery–the landscape and wildlife that exists in South Georgia. Her description of deforestation, what we’ve lost that it will take a Herculean effort to reclaim, almost brought me to tears.

She pulls no punches about the South. But she also explores the “why” of the place. Her depth of understanding of both people & nature makes her a tremendous ecology writer.

If books about place speak to you, this is a fine one. As a Southern nature lover, it’s an imperative read.