The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Where the God of Love Hangs Out

Amy Bloom’s collection of stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, sucked me in right away. I didn’t even mean to read the dang book. I was just moving it to a new location and, on a whim, flipped open to the first page. By the end of the first paragraph, I was hooked.  

It’s not magical writing. Quite the opposite. The realism of her prose that drew me in. Not gritty. Just straightforward. The simple moments that slip into big ones. The miniscule choices we make that amount to a life upturned, broken wide open to make room for something else. In Bloom’s stories, things don’t turn out like you want them—they turn out the way they likely would if they were unfolding in my life or your own. I found myself nodding, thinking “yes, yes, that’s the way things are sometimes.” It was therapeutic to read a world so unromanticized. Bloom seemed to be nodding at her readers, reminding them that they aren’t alone, that no one’s life works out exactly as they had planned. But still, we all press on. And manage to live vibrant, imperfect lives. 

Some of Bloom’s stories build off each other. Those were my favorites. The ones that explored grief, loss, parental relationships, and the ways that love is both more than we expected and so much less. But they all brought forth a nugget of truth for examination. And I loved them for that & for their utter relatability.  

For The Love of Words

I spent the last 2 days hanging around writers, booksellers, and publishers.

I think, as humans, one of the very best things we can do for ourselves is find our little group of like-minded weirdos. Everybody is weird (some prefer “unique,” but whatever). Being in a group of similarly weird people makes you feel connected and understood. You don’t have to explain yourself, or search for just the right words to make someone understand your point of view. Your Weirdo Tribe is just going to GET IT.

Me, I walk through the world thinking about words about 85% of the time. See, weird. But I’m a writer and an aspiring bookseller–that’s, like, ALL the words.

But 2 things happened during my sojourn with these bookseller/writer types that gave me that blissful feeling when you see something of yourself in someone else–when the very innermost parts of you feel represented and seen:

#1: One of the presenters from Southern Fried Karma (“a multi-media production company developing projects in music, films and books”–but c’mon, isn’t that just the best name?!?) started talking about the power of books to establish community. Because we know that reading builds empathy. And empathy paves the way for community and connection. The more you read, most often the wider your worldview. The more you see similarities and understand the way other people experience the world, the less strong your impluse to “other” people. The more likely you become to reach out, to seek diverse communities, to support people–even those seemingly unlike yourself.

And that’s precisely what the dude from SFK was expressing when he told the story about white supremacists coming to his small, Georgia town to have a rally–and the black and white communities uniting to keep out the white supremacists, creating a space where hate could not thrive. And as he talked about the power of books to create this kind of empathy, to unite two seemingly disparate communities in rural(ish) Georgia, he began to tear up.

And OH. MY. GOD. Yes.

I tear up when I talk about books all the time. Because they are so powerful. And stories–every story–can change the world (that’s why the tagline for Bookish is “Every Story Matters.”) And hell yes, that’s something to get emotional over.

We need change. Books ARE that change. We just need to get them into the hands of the people and remind them about the magical ability of stories to change lives.

#2: On the Bus Tour of Atlanta Bookstores, I met an author from North Carolina who’s debut novel is coming out this Summer. That’s a BIG DEAL. We chatted about how tough the writing process can be (there are no bon-bons involved. It is NOT, in fact, a cakewalk). And I gave her the brief rundown about the progress on my middle grades novel. Honestly, I’d never talked to someone who was just a short stretch ahead of me on the road to becoming published. Most folks I meet are either established authors… or they are going to write an book someday. But this woman had just emerged from the trenches of rewriting, revising, and editing… and now she had a BOOK that other people were going to READ. I just found it all so hopeful. Like maybe it would happen for me, too.

The next day, the same woman was a presenter at the conference I attended. She spoke about the blurry line between memoir and fiction that is autofiction. And that was amazing in and of itself, because I’ve been thinking about memoir writing, but hesitating because–for real, y’all–once upon a time, I drank so much that my memory isn’t entirely trustworthy. But autofiction opens up a whole new world where things can be true AND not true. Whoa.

But, also, in describing the ways that readers react to autofiction (often by trying to determine how much of the fiction is “true” and how much authority you really have two write about certain themes), she shared part of her story with us. And I swear, it was just like my story. And nothing like my story. And the things she said made me feel so visible, and I thought she was so brave to have shared them, that I ran right up to her afterwards to give her a hug. Because how often does someone tell your story that isn’t your story and remind about so much of what was and what isn’t but what always is?

Rarely. And oh my Lord, is it a gift.

Stories are so much bigger than us. They take on a life of their own. They reach people in ways we can’t begin to fathom. And they do change lives. Hell, they can change the whole world.

(And, yes, I totally cried the whole time I wrote this. Whatever.)

On Being a Writer

I always harbored romantic notions of what life as a writer would look like:

I thought I’d live in a cabin in the mountains. I’d leisurely make coffee each morning, warming my hands on the mug, preparing for another day of brilliance. I’d walk my Irish Setter, Maggie, unleashed along the sun dappled mountain trails, wearing a sweater (both me and Maggie), still holding that cup of coffee. Then I’d settle down at my desk overlooking the forest and a small creek, and begin to write. I never envisioned a computer, so God only knows what I was writing on. A typewriter, maybe? Which would work. Because writers never make mistakes and they never have to revise. Not really. Just an added comma here and there. Brilliance would emanate from my very being. And my sage wisdom about life, my tremendous insight into the inner working of the universe, would flow into my characters with ease. People would clammer to buy my latest work. I’d be revered and mysterious.

Here’s the reality of my life as a writer:

I get up at 5:30 a.m. not to write, but so I can grab a minute to myself for mindfulness & meditation–which is key to my being able to write later on. I do get to sip a leisurely cup of coffee as I bask in my morning quietude. That’s about the only similarity between the romanticized version of me and, well, ME.

I do have a dog. She’s a bouncing, drooling mess who I adore but who will never, ever go anywhere unleashed. And I can’t have a cup of coffee while I’m walking her, unless I intend to rejuvenate my skin with the wonders of caffeine. Because you know I’d be wearing that cup of coffee.

I write at my kitchen table, while telling the dog to stop barking at passersby and intermittently throwing a toy for her to keep her entertained. I have written a middle grades novel, which felt brilliant as I was writing it. But now it needs revision. As all writing does. And that doesn’t feel brilliant or romantic. It feels like work.

I write not serenely staring out at the lush mountainside but casting sidelong glances at the mountains of books that need to be cleaned, scanned, and sorted–inventory for the used bookstore that became part of the dream. Because every story matters. Mine. Yours. The ones in books and the ones yet to be told.

Writing involves practice. It’s the constant jotting down of thoughts and ideas. It’s grabbing a minute to write a blog post. It’s revising for the good of the story–because you believe it deserves to be told and is therefore worthy of your work, your effort.

Writing is messy. It’s not linear. But that makes it a lot more like me. I can relate to its ever evolving nature, its immediacy, its fits and starts. Nothing is more rewarding to me than immersing myself in stories.

But I’m going to be honest: my dog hates wearing sweaters.

Know-it-all-ness + perfectionism = the death of curiosity

Developing good listening skills is a top priority for me in 2019. I know some folks who will be REAL thrilled about that.

I’m kind of a shit listener.

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Trust me, this is as shocking a revelation to me as it is to you. I thrive on interpersonal connection. When someone is telling me about the stuff that drives them, shapes them, makes them them, then I excel at listening.

It’s the other 85% of the time that I’m falling way short of the mark.

But being a good listener is a trait I really prize in other people. Good listeners are the folks I usually consider wise and insightful. Other people gravitate to them. Because you know what people want more than almost anything else? To be heard.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I started sorting through my listening problem. Being an abysmal listener isn’t a space I’m willing to dwell in–now that I’m aware of it. Nope. Onward and upward.

Here’s what I found:

  1. My not-so-good listening is connected to my know-it-all-ness. True, in daily life, I’ve tamped down my need to act like I know everything. Because that’s all kinds of of annoying. But there’s still this underlying thing: when confronted with information I know nothing about, I simply gloss over it in my mind. It’s a mental version of yeah-yeah-yeahing. I just assume I kind of know what’s going on and can make educated guesses about the rest of it. And I do this with topics I know nothing about.  You can imagine how effective that might be. giphy-4
  2. This mental yeah-yeah-yeahing relates directly to my lack of curiosity. I’ve realized recently that I don’t ask enough questions. I don’t ask why or how enough. And this is precisely why I suck at small talk. I just assume I’m not interested in “surface topics.” Which is some bullshit that means I don’t want to mentally engage about things that may not be in my wheelhouse. I don’t want to dig deeper–and leave my comfort zone. But lately I’ve been watching Simon communicate with people–and I’ve realized he really excels at this. He asks questions about things that are obviously important to the person he’s talking to. And then he gets these really interesting answers. Because he’s curious. I need more of that in my world. giphy-5
  3. Ultimately, I think all this–the know-it-all-ness and the lack of curiosity–finds its root in the perfectionism that’s dogged me since I was a kid. I know some folks roll their eyes at the idea of perfectionism. I mean, who doesn’t want to be perfect, right? But I was the kind of kid who wouldn’t do something if I didn’t know I could do it right the first time. Anything less than a A on a test made me want to give up (see: high school Trigonometry and Chemistry). I’ve worked hard to shake this nonsense. Because–hello–I believe life is a continuous learning cycle. But I also wrote a novel that I thought I got perfect on the first try. And I was kind of crushed when someone told me it, in fact, needed work. Even though I should’ve known this right away because a) I am a writer. I revise things all the time and b) I taught college writing for 5 years. Which means all I did for 5 years was read student revisions, while constantly reiterating the benefits of revision to said students. But suddenly, I wrote a book and I forgot all that. I needed the project to be perfect to be worthwhile. Which meant I didn’t want to listen. To anything.giphy-6

Good listening is top on my list of priorities in 2019. At 43, I’d be a fool not to admit how little I know. The universal well of knowledge is so vast that the mere thought of how much I don’t know can completely paralyze me. But the easiest way I’ve found to let knowledge flow into my world is simply acknowledging that everyone I meet is my teacher. Which means I have to be humble enough to admit that I don’t know everything, and then open myself to the knowledge people are willing to impart if I’m just curious enough to receive it.

I write because I believe that stories matter. That they can change the world. I think it’s time to really open myself to the stories around me–even the ones that present themselves in the most ordinary of ways.

Living with What Is (in Pugs & in Life)

I’ve finally, finally learned that, if I’m struggling, it’s likely because I’m trying to deal with what I wish was, instead of dealing with reality. If strapless dress had been dealing in reality yesterday, I wouldn’t have gotten chased down by a pug.

I set out for my run late yesterday afternoon. It took some convincing—some internal bargaining—but I finally won the argument with myself, laced up my shoes, and bounded down my driveway and up the street. I made it three blocks before I was accosted by a pug. That’s right. A pug.

“Stella*! Stella!” I heard someone yelling. Not frantically. Just as if Stella, whoever Stella was, might need some help refocusing her attention.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wiggling, snorting black blur headed right for me. I heard tags jingling and quickly surmised that Stella wasn’t a wayward child. She was a dog. A dog with a keen interest in me.

I kept going as Stella ran as fast as she could (which really wasn’t all that fast) after me. By now, her person, who’d been sitting placidly on a blanket on her front lawn, was trailing Stella. I stopped. Because I am full of mercy.

The woman jogged up wearing a long strapless dress with a shabby chic floral pattern. Her hair was swept up in a bun. She was apologizing profusely. With as much good-will as I could muster, I assured her that it was fine. She tried to scoop up her dog, who by now had actually gotten distracted and was headed in the opposite direction in a sort-of-speedy mosey, if you will. Honestly, the way pugs move kind of defies description.

About this time, the male significant other of the woman in the floral, strapless dress walked out on the porch. He immediately started fussing: “Bring her back inside. She’s going to run right into traffic. Why do you have her out here anyway?”

I immediately got it: this woman wanted a lazy afternoon, laying on a blanket in the beautiful Atlanta spring weather, with her dog snoozing beside her. But this dog wasn’t the snoozing kind. By the guy’s reaction, I’m not sure the dog had been outside—like maybe ever. Certainly not to while away the day on a blanket in the sun.

Girl, I thought, you’ve got to learn to live with the pug you’ve got.

Oh. My. Lord. YES.

Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we all learned to live with the pug we’ve got? You think you don’t have a pug? Hold up.

Maybe your pug isn’t ACTUALLY a pug. I’ve had lots of pugs:

 

My personality: Probably about the 100th time I got scolded for being overly-sensitive as a kid, I started to wish I was different. Not so sensitive. I saw my sensitivity as a character flaw. My feelings always seemed so outsized. As I got older, I tried to take the edge off my BIG feelings with alcohol. Yeah. That worked brilliantly. (Not really.) But, after I got sober and sorted some things out, I began to embrace my sensitivity instead of fighting to change it. Now, I can see that it’s my sensitivity that allows me to connect with people and form relationships quickly. I got to reap the benefits of this oft-denigrated personality trait when I learned to live with the pug I’ve got (instead of numbing, or fighting, or denying).

My relationship: Do not tell Simon I called him a pug. But, for real, I increased my suffering exponentially when Simon transitioned by pining for what was instead of embracing what our relationship had become. I wanted to be married to a girl. I mean, I had been. Kind of. Not really. It was confusing. But I liked being a lesbian. It was a label I felt comfortable with, one that had described my reality for two decades. Now, suddenly, I was married to a guy. A real cute guy. But I just kept wishing for something different. I couldn’t even see Simon, for all my wishing for something different. Know what, though? When you don’t face the reality of what you’ve got, you risk your pug running out of your front lawn and right into traffic. Fortunately, I learned to live with the pug I’ve got (and embrace the hell out of that pug) before things fell apart. It was a close call, though.

My kid: I know, I know. I write about my kid’s utter amazingness all the time. But when Jane was in preschool, I wrung my hands constantly over her being a follower instead of a leader. She had this frenemy that seemed to have complete sway over her. Jane and this frenemy would gang up on the other little girl in their dysfunctional triad. Then, later on in the week, the frenemy and the other girl would be mean to Jane. I was in a tizzy. Was I raising a mean girl? Why couldn’t Jane take control of this situation? But, in order to address the frenemy situation in a meaningful way, I had to learn to live the pug I got. So, I started addressing Jane just as she was, at 4 years old, instead of addressing the 17 year old I hoped she’d grow into one day. I looked at the ways she was hurting. I saw her confusion and frustration. Once I clearly saw reality (the places she needed to be built up, the character traits that needed positive reinforcement), I could deal with Jane as she was. And you know what? She still talks about the lessons she learned from that first frenemy relationship.

I’ve finally, finally learned that, if I’m struggling, it’s likely because I’m trying to deal with what I wish was, instead of dealing with reality. If strapless dress had been dealing in reality yesterday, I wouldn’t have gotten chased down by a pug.

Maybe we could just all agree to try a little harder to learn to live with the pugs we’ve got.

 

*Name changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

 

Photo Credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

7 Reasons to Love Seven

When I found out I was (finally) pregnant, I fundamentally misunderstood what was about to happen. I mean, I wanted a KID. What I got was, well, a baby. Turns out, babies aren’t really my thing.

When I found out I was (finally) pregnant, I fundamentally misunderstood what was about to happen. I mean, I wanted a KID. What I got was, well, a baby. Turns out, babies aren’t really my thing.

Let’s be clear: I loved MY baby (don’t ask me to hold yours). She was perfect, very loved, and she made stellar faces.

 

What more could I have asked for?

I took that baby everywhere with me. I ate taco off her head once (the scenario involved a sleeping Jane, a baby Bjorn, and a very hungry me). We did mommy & me swim lessons, storytime at the library, a crafting event here and there… I tried to find something new and fun to do with her every day—even though most days we wound up at Publix for the free cookies (SPRINKLES!).

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Simon swears Jane’s got such a kick-ass vocabulary because I talked to her incessantly for the 3 years I stayed home with her. I don’t know about all that. Her first contextual phrase was “Dude. Seriously?!?” when a guy cut me off in traffic. But, it’s true that from the minute I saw her, I wanted to connect with her, to understand what she saw in the world. I wanted to really know this tiny human—but tiny humans are SO MUCH WORK.

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The other day, as I watched 7 year-old Jane playing with her friends, I realized that this is it! This is the age I daydreamed about when I thought about having kids. Seven is spectacular!

7 Reasons I Love Seven:

    1. Seven tells stories. So many stories. About a kid at school eating his shoe or someone falling down (on purpose, of course) or dancing in class (dancing is VERY amusing). She tells serious stories, too—about kids who had bad days or made bad choices, or kids moving way or having trouble at home … It’s these moments when I can see her compassion at work that I realize what a whole, fascinating little person she’s become.
    2. Seven loves to laugh. Everything is funny. I stumble over a word I’m trying to say. Hysterical. Simon spills water on his shirt. Riotously funny. Sometimes she laughs so hard when she’s telling a story that I can’t understand half of what she’s saying. But I end up laughing right along with her. Because kid giggles = irresistible.28059042_10156099009572889_3214456958509982927_n
    3. Seven’s got playground insults. Yep, we’re full on into “I know you are but what am I?” Also, “Cheater, cheater, lemon-eater” is real big right now. (I thought it was pumpkin-eater, but what do I know?) Also, anything that involves butt or poop is not only a great insult but VERY funny. I kinda think it’s funny, too. But then again, my response to just about everything is “Your mom.” Apple, tree, and all that.
    4. Seven reads books. Jane started reading independently this school year. She reads chapter books now. And each time she opens a book, I know she’s opening an entirely new world… it’s magical. For me and for her. (And, yes, we still read to her. Right now, she and Simon are working their way through the second Harry Potter book).
    5. Seven thinks deep thoughts. Jane and I talk about real world stuff all the time. No topic is off limits: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, bullying… When we’re in the middle of these conversations, I never know how they’re going. There’s no real litmus test for am I saying something that will inadvertently land my kid in therapy in 10 years, you know? But Jane ponders some of these conversations after the fact and comes back with really good, critical thinking questions that make me so hopeful about how she will navigate her way through the world.29683507_10156191825082889_4802467397519797248_n
    6. Seven embraces being a nerd. Jane loves to learn. She sits in her room and does math problems for fun. She writes books on the side (mostly non-fiction about our boxer, Delilah). She adores her pink glasses. And she freely admits that she’s excited about nerd camp this summer (a camp run by the school district for brainiacs. No, it’s not ACTUALLY called nerd camp. But in this house, we like to call it like we see it).
    7. Seven is incredibly self-confident. Jane feels good about herself. She knows that she’s capable, strong, and kind. She loves to run. She says she’s an expert bike rider (even though she’s been riding for about 3 weeks). She believes that everyone wants to be friends with her. And she embraces the world whole-heartedly.

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I look at this miraculous person, this seven year-old, and I think—oh my Lord. She is so much like me. And so very different. She’s a person. A small complex human, who both needs me and doesn’t.

She’s seven. And seven is magic.

Coffee: A Quick Study in Walkability

The most pressing issue was that we had no coffee for in the morning. Monday morning. I don’t know how other people live their lives, but in my house we don’t face Mondays without ample caffeine.

I read the paragraph. I shook my head and read it again. 11 year olds don’t talk like that! This sucks. Maybe the whole thing sucks? Sweet baby Jesus on a pogo stick. What am I doing? By the end of a one-hour editing session, I’ll be the first to admit that my self-talk isn’t always on point. I will also admit that I briefly thought about throwing my computer into a lake. Fortunately, no lakes are readily available in my intown Atlanta neighborhood—so I set myself to the next task: coffee.

Not like I wanted a cup of coffee right then—although I kind of did. The more pressing issue was that we had no coffee for in the morning. Monday morning. I don’t know how other people live their lives, but in my house we don’t face Mondays without ample caffeine.

The lack-of-coffee issue was complicated by the no-car issue. As in, I don’t have one. A rugged and rather-adorable 1988 Ford F-150 named Larry does live at my house. But I can’t drive him. He’s finicky about going into gear sometimes, you see. Thank you, but no thank you. Besides, Larry was sitting at the MARTA station, where Simon & Jane had gone to catch the train to the soccer game.

I briefly considered my options:

  • Wait for Simon to come home from the game and then ask him to drive to the store to get coffee. That seemed super-sucky. He’d wrangled the kid at a professional sporting event, back and forth on public transit… it just seemed a little cold-hearted to hit him with the need to run errands when he got home close to 9 p.m.
  • Ride my bike to the store. But it was getting dark. And all the roads were wet. And it was cold. I scratched biking off the list, too.
  • Walk to the store. This seemed like the most valid option. I can certainly walk in the dark. But the grocery store is 1.6 miles from my house. I have walked it before—but I don’t love the jaunt over there. And did I mention it was cold & rainy?

I quickly realized that walking was my best option (notice that not getting coffee appears NOWHERE on that list). So, I started brainstorming places closer to me than the big grocery store. There’s a coffee shop that I love on Memorial, but walking up Cherokee to get there feels like it’s straight up a long, endless hill. Usually, I’m totally cool with it. But I just wanted something easy. That didn’t feel easy.

The coffee shop at the bottom of the first dip in Cherokee doesn’t sell coffee—or at least I didn’t remember them selling coffee. And they were closed by the time I pulled my act together.

Finally, I remembered that there’s a little eatery/store on Boulevard (about a mile away). It’s locally owned. Love that. And I knew they had bagged coffee—but you can be damn sure I called ahead to check before I hauled myself over there. Sure enough, they did and I set out to get it.

I got there and quickly discovered that what they had was coffee from a locally owned sustainable micro-roaster.

Now, let’s just stop right there and let me say a few things:

  • I like to shop local.
  • I realized when I went to this store, I’d pay more for coffee than I’d pay at the grocery store.
  • I love coffee more than most things, so I am not really complaining about this, so much as observing.

I bought a bag of coffee. It was $14.

Holy shit.

I am so grateful that I have an extra $14 to spend on coffee. I am. And I love that I supported not one but TWO small businesses with that transaction. Really, it just never occurred to me that the closest place to get coffee might cost twice what I buy coffee for at the grocery. And yes, it is far superior to what I buy at the grocery. But I kept thinking about the folks who don’t have a car. Like ever. The choice between a very long, cold rainy walk or paying premium price for coffee was not lost on me.

My neighborhood needs more corner markets where folks can buy staples easily. Not boutique markets aimed at gentrifiers. Real, affordable food for everyone. There’s a place for boutique and niche markets. But there’s also a real need to have accessible marketplaces that are walkable and filled with real food.

(Also, I realized this morning, as I was enjoying my micro-roasted coffee, that if I had walked two blocks further, I would have gotten to CVS—which probably had (not nearly as good) cheap coffee that I could have bought for a hefty mark-up.)

This lesson about food accessibility is just one in a long line of gut-punch lessons in compassion I’ve received these last two months while I’ve been carless. I am grateful for what I’ve been given (especially for my delightful cup of coffee this morning). But I’ve become ever-mindful of the people who have less than I do. That’s been a beautiful, wrenching gift.

 

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash