Saturday, May 30, 2015

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King (book review)

Glory O'Brien's History of the FutureGlory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My main pet peeve about many of the young adult novels I've read is that they don't have strong adult characters. And I get that. Teenagers often don't think of their parents and teachers and other adults around them as interesting, complex individuals. Why would a teenage protagonist bother to flesh out the adult characters in their story? A.S. King's Glory O'Brien's History of the Future is different. Probably because the main character, Glory O'Brien, is different. Actually, she's completely normal, but she feels different. Glory's mother, Darla, committed suicide when Glory was four-years-old. Now Glory is graduating high school, motherless, wondering about her own future, worrying that she'll end up with her head in the oven like her mother. Her dad, a widower these thirteen years, was once a painter but now he slouches on the couch balancing a laptop on his knees while eating microwaved frozen dinners from a plastic tray. It is just as much his story I enjoyed seeing unfurl before my eyes as Glory finds her own way.

Then there's the whole drinking a bat and gaining super psychic powers and writing the history of the future bit. It was surprisingly not difficult to suspend disbelief with this part of the novel. I'd recommend this book to teens and adults who tend to lean toward more realistic fiction, but who want to explore a relatable dystopian fiction book. I'd also recommend it to teens and women dealing with eating disorders or body dysmorphia, and anyone interested in a strong feminist character's point of view.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Josh Duggar sex abuse scandal, my brother, and me

***trigger warning: child sexual abuse***

The Josh Duggar case is all fucked up. And I'm all mixed up about it. I feel both sympathy for and disgust with pretty much everyone involved. Except for the Duggar girls. For them, I feel just sadness and sympathy. My disgust is mostly directed at the parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who did too little too late, and at TLC, the television network that chose to broadcast a marathon of episodes of the family's reality TV show, "19 Kids and Counting" after news broke that the eldest son in the Duggar clan, Josh, had been accused of sexually abusing his sisters when he was a teenager.

Oooh, a nice, juicy sex abuse scandal: what a lucky break! Great for ratings! I wonder how much money TLC made off of advertisements featured during that Dugger marathon?

I didn't have time to catch any of the episodes even if I had wanted to. I've been busy making myself sick reading the news articles and straining my eyes, averting them to the bombardment of advertisements on the sides of the news websites. It's not my usual empathy-fatigue from reading news headlines. This one is triggering. This one hits too close to home. And yet, I can't stop reading the story. It's not schadenfreude. I would not wish this sad story on anyone's family, even people I consider to be intolerant nutjobs.

In case you've somehow missed it, here's a timeline of the Duggar story. Feel free to familiarize yourself with the creepy details at your own risk.

I don't know why I'm following it. It's like maybe if I keep reading about these people whose sick story is so eerily similar to mine, I'll see some warning sign, some clue to understanding my own story, something that can help me make sense out of the sadness, the secrets, the sexual abuse.

Who am I kidding? Who can make sense out of any of that?

And still, I try.

Let's just get it over with. My story. Rip the Band-aid from the wound.

When I was a young girl my brother, Pat, molested me. It started when I was about three and Pat was about twelve and ended when I was about five and Pat was about fourteen. The last time he brought along his friend and they forced me to touch his friend is disgusting ways and they touched me and I hated it. I had enough. Pat had told me not to tell our mom because it was our secret, and if I did tell her, she would be so upset that she would have to go to the hospital and stay for a long time. But I did. I told her. And she didn't have to go away to the hospital. In fact, it opened Mom and me up to a long-lasting conversation that has helped me learn to heal.

It was brave of me to tell my mom. The threat of her hospitalization was real and always in the back of my mind. But I had to protect myself. I had to tell.

Before I was born, Mom was hospitalized against her will, after she had a "nervous breakdown". What really happened is that she spoke up against an abuse of power and she was punished for it. Mom showed up at a bar one night, surprising her (first) husband, Jim--who is Pat's dad but not mine--and his girlfriend. After confronting them, Mom left the bar. Jim ran after her and threatened to kill her if she ever embarrassed him like that again in front of his friends. Mom didn't know what to do. She had given up a scholarship to attend college so she could marry this man when she was 18. So she could cook for him. Clean for him. Have his children and take care of them. She didn't have a job. She didn't know how she could support herself and their young kids. She didn't want to die, but she didn't want to live like this.

She broke down. Her husband and her mother had her hospitalized where she received electroshock therapy and sat in the clean, white hospital bed, making potholders. It was the Sixties. Mad Men era, for you TV junkies. Women had few options. Husband cheats on you and threatens to kill you? You're gonna get locked up if you complain about it.

When my brother Pat and I were both adults and we could speak on equal terms, Pat told me that his first memory was of Mom being taken away to the hospital. Pat was four, clutching Mom's legs, begging for them not to take her away.

Four is extremely young to experience trauma. I know. He knew. Too many of us know.

Pat's dad finally split and Mom filed for divorce. She remarried, my dad, and had me. Pat was nine when I was born. At first, Pat was glad Mom had remarried and had gotten them out of our grandparent's house where they spent their days. Mom marrying my dad meant she could quit her job as a dental assistant and be a stay-at-home mom again. Our grandmother who babysat him after school and during summer break was psychologically unstable, and whenever she'd abuse Pat, she'd tell him not to tell our mom or it would give her a nervous breakdown and send her back to the hospital.

Pat was glad to get away from our grandmother. But soon, my dad turned out to be too rigid and controlling, authoritarian and violent. Pat moved in with our grandfather, who had by then divorced our grandmother, and soon after that he moved out of town, hitchhiking around the country by the time he was 18.

I'm not trying to excuse Pat's behavior. He should not have abused me. I didn't deserve it, for sure. But I also understand that sometimes people do disgusting things because it's all they know. Not because they're full of sin. Not because they're monsters. Just because it's all they know.

I want to figure out a way to help people know better.

One of the things that's helped me survive this crazy battle is the open dialogue between my mom and me. The conversations we have shared since my first day of bravery, when I was five, when I told her about my abuse, have helped me enormously. For a long time I didn't like to talk about my struggles with Mom because I was genuinely afraid that she might get taken away by men in white lab coats. But as I matured, and as I watched Mom grow stronger herself, I realized I could tell her anything. Having access to that kind of openness, that kind of unconditional love, has helped me heal.

Mom was always open about sex. I could ask her anything about it and she would answer to her best ability. Sometimes if she didn't know the answer, she'd recommend a book or a TV show. During my early teenage years Mom and I were avid viewers of the Dr. Ruth Show on TV. Mom never made me think that sex was dirty or that my thoughts were impure.

The most difficult thing was watching my mom be controlled by the men in her life. The stories she told me about her first marriage to Jim. How my dad would throw a temper tantrum if he didn't get his way and how mom too often caved to his every whim. It took a long time, but she finally got up the guts to leave him. She was single for ten years, and it was good for me to see her take care of herself.

I was once a victim of sexual abuse, but I've grown into a strong woman by watching and learning from my mom. And the biggest support she gave me was an open mind and an open ear.

What worries me the most about the Duggar situation is that people will just read the headlines and think they know what's right and what's wrong. They won't delve deeper and think for themselves. They won't stop and reflect and wish peace upon all the people involved, from the obtuse parents to the inept "authorities" who covered up the mess to the girls who are the victims and, yes, even the boy perpetrator who grew to be a man of power in conservative political circles. Peace be with them all.

The only path to peace I know is with eyes wide open. Covering up disgusting secrets makes them fester and eat away at our souls.

It's more than just covering up disgusting secrets, though. It's relegating sex and sexuality to a place of darkness and shame. Our society is so warped. Most of us think it's "normal" to see women in bikinis selling sports cars in ads. And yet we get uncomfortable talking with our kids about sex. Some parents still want to teach abstinence only sex ed when it's grossly ineffective at preventing teen pregnancies and STIs.

It is perfectly natural for teenagers to experience sexual feelings. I found this fact on the U.S. National Library of Medicine's website:

"Having regular nocturnal emissions (wet dreams) marks the beginning of puberty in boys. Wet dreams typically start between ages 13 and 17, with the average at about 14.5 years."

Instead of telling teens to ignore their natural urges and pray for help, we need to help them find healthy outlets for sexual expression. How about encouraging masturbation like they do across the pond? Why not teach children that sex is natural between two consenting people, and that it's wrong to fondle people in their sleep, or when they're drunk, or when they are too young to understand what's going on?

Keeping kids in the dark about sex and sexuality does not lead to healthy sexual experiences.

I'm mostly worried about the Dugger girls, the victims of their brother Josh's abuse. They have been raised in the Quiverfull movement, which subjugates women and girls, as this excellent post on Patheos points out:
Even the parts of conservative Christianity that allow women to participate in church leadership still unofficially condone treating women as less than men. The Duggars are part of the fundamentalist Protestant movement called “Quiverfull” which is known for seeing children as an unmitigated blessing from God and therefore it promotes procreation and, for the most part, equates contraception with abortion. 
Not surprisingly, even former members of the movement says it is also known for the subjugation of women. 
It should come of little surprise then that when the Duggars learned about what Josh had done to his sisters, they stuck with their conservative Christian convictions and protected the boy and not his victims.
So what are the Duggars teaching their daughters about sex?

For one thing, your body is not your own. Your body belongs to God the Father and your father before marriage. Your body belongs to God and your husband after marriage. Look at the sex advice Mother Duggar gives:
Michelle says a friend gave her advice to live by before she and Jim Bob married in 1984: "She said, 'In your marriage there will be times you're going to be very exhausted. Your hubby comes home after a hard day's work, you get the baby to bed, and he is going to be looking forward to that time with you.'" — she's talking about sex, just so everyone's clear — "'Be available. Anyone can fix him lunch, but only one person can meet that physical need of love that he has, and you always need to be available when he calls.'" 
So, never hide your body from your husband after marriage, but never reveal it to the community before marriage. Evidently, the female body is too tempting even to be seen in a swim suit at the beach, according to this saucy spread about how the Duggars do romance:
Duggars believe bodies are "special gifts" to be shared only with husbands. Dancing encourages "sensual" feelings, warns Michelle. Swim dresses with built-in shorts (bought at, are conservative enough for her brood, says Michelle. Other beachgoers' suits are the problem: "It's just too hard for the guys to try and keep their eyes averted."
God forbid you try talking to kids about bodies and sex and encouraging them to discuss their natural feelings instead of teaching them to avert their eyes and avoid the beach.

On pages 114-115 of the book Growing Up Duggar, co-written by the four oldest daughters of the huge Duggar clan--Jana, Jill, Jessa, and Jinger--there is a section entitled "Defining the Purity Ring" which lends insight into their family's ideas about sex, specifically when sex is pure and when sex is impure:

This doesn't mean we're to ignore the fact that God has created us to have a natural physical desire toward men. When these feelings arise, we thank God for making us "normal." Within a godly marriage, this kind of desire can be a wonderful blessing that bonds the husband and wife together in the way God intended. But during our single years, this physical attraction, if not carefully controlled, can also be one of the biggest sources of temptation and struggles.  
One way our parents have helped us understand the principles designed to keep us pure is by giving all of us older girls purity rings. The rings were special gifts we received when the four of us were in our early teenage years (because our family didn't become aware of this relatively new practice until then)...  
...To each of us, the ring has a fourfold purpose. First, it's a symbol of our commitment to keep ourselves physically pure as we wait for the one God intends for us to marry. Second, it symbolizes our desire to involve our parents in our decision of a life partner. Third, our ring reminds us to pray for the man God would have us marry and to guard our own heart so that one day we can share it fully with him. Fourth (and most important), it's a reminder that God is the true fulfiller of all our desires and also a reminder to cherish our relationship with Him and live purposefully between now and the time He sees fit to bring that man into our lives...  
Dad has asked us girls, "What kind of girl do you think a godly guy will be attracted to?"  
The answer is, a godly girl. That's what he and Mom are continually encouraging each of us girls to become. We know that a godly girl is not someone who has lived a "perfect" life but is someone who has received God's forgiveness and is seeking to put the past behind her and choosing to live every day for Him. Some of the greatest people in the Bible were those who had made a lot of bad decisions earlier in their life, but then God got a hold of them, and they completely turned over the rest of their life to following and serving Him.
Yuck. These poor girls.

It's especially sickening to read this line now that we know their older brother got a powerful job with an anti-LGBT lobbying group, The Family Research Council, after he sexually abused them:

This doesn't mean we're to ignore the fact that God has created us to have a natural physical desire toward men. When these feelings arise, we thank God for making us "normal." 

I assume they mean as opposed to gay? Because God knows that gay people are perverts who you can't trust around children. Just ask their mom, Michelle Duggar, who lent her voice to this anti-LGBT robocall asking residents to protest an anti-discrimination ordinance going before the  Fayetteville City Council last fall:

Hello, this is Michelle Duggar. I’m calling to inform you of some shocking news that would affect the safety of Northwest Arkansas women and children. The Fayetteville City Council is voting on an ordinance this Tuesday night that would allow men — yes I said men — to use womens and girls restrooms, locker rooms, showers, sleeping areas and other areas that are designated for females only. I don’t believe the citizens of Fayetteville would want males with past child predator convictions that claim they are female to have a legal right to enter private areas that are reserved for women and girls. I doubt that Fayetteville parents would stand for a law that would endanger their daughters or allow them to be traumatized by a man joining them in their private space. We should never place the preference of an adult over the safety and innocence of a child. Parents, who do you want undressing next to your daughter at the public swimming pool’s private changing area? I still believe that we are a society that puts women and children first. Women, young ladies, and little girls deserve to use the restroom and any other women's facility in peace and safety...
When the ordinance failed to pass, Josh Duggar, by then the Director of FRC Action, celebrated by chatting with conservative leader Dr. Richard Land about the successful repeal of a Fayetteville, Arkansas bathroom bill. Here's what Josh Duggar said:

We have to continue to extend laws and respect and dignity to all people, even those, you know, with whom we disagree. But we have to make sure that we're standing up for the rights of privacy and protecting the well being of women and children in our cities. 
Thank you, Josh Duggar, you sanctimonious prick.

I understand that people make mistakes, especially when they are teenagers. Some might even call those mistakes "sins". I don't, but that doesn't matter here. What matters is that many people believe in sin, and in forgiveness of sin, which it appears the Duggars do. And although I'd like to believe Josh Duggar when he apologized on Facebook this week for his past actions, it makes me sick to think that all these years after having used his male status to abuse his young sisters and get away with it, only to go on to a powerful political job speaking out against gay people, spreading hate and fear and lies, scaring people into thinking that LBGT people are harmful to is just too much pot and kettle and blackness.

My brother Pat did not become a powerful anti-gay lobbyist, or even a scandalized former one. Pat lived his life, fucking some things up, making some things right, just as we all do. He learned lessons and he told stories. He did the best he could, and the one thing I can say about Pat is that he was one of the most loving, accepting, open-minded men I've ever met. Pat knew no strangers. You couldn't walk by his front porch without him inviting you on to it for a beer. No matter who you were, or what you looked like. When the love of his life, Sharon, died of liver failure, Pat succumbed a few months later, himself. The person he ended up hurting the most was himself. An hour before he died, I got to say goodbye to him and tell him that I love him. He said he loves me, too. We're good. I can't forget, but I do forgive him.

It's difficult to explain to people who have not been sexually abused how much it fucks with you for life. It's not something you ever get over. I can't give my husband a loving blow job without some small part of me remembering the gagging feeling I felt far too young, against my will. That fucking sucks. Sexual abuse is icky and gross and no one wants to talk about it, but if we want to find a way to stop it, we have to open ourselves up to having the conversation.

As a parent myself now, from the first time my young daughter started asking me about sexual issues, I've been honest with her. I've pounded into her brain these things:

1) You are the boss of your body. You can say "no" to anyone you don't want to touch you.

2) You never have to have sex if you don't want to. Even when you're grown up and married. Your body is yours and you get to decide who to share it with and when.

3) Your body is beautiful and fun and amazing. Explore it. Feel good about yourself in the privacy of your bedroom or in the bathroom. Don't feel ashamed to get to know your own body and share it with yourself and who you decide is worthy of it.

When she's old enough, I'm going to get my daughter the book I read as a young woman, Sex for One: The Joy of Self Loving by Betty Dodson. I'll show her old Dr. Ruth videos on YouTube. I'll answer her questions to the best of my ability and encourage her to not just keep her heart open, but to keep her mind open too. Yes, it's good to be loving and forgiving. It's even better to be loving and educated and strong, to figure out ways to lessen the need to forgive.

My brother sexually abused me when I was a young girl. The main reason I’ve been able to heal is because I’ve been encouraged to talk and write about it openly, and unlike the Duggar girls, I was taught that sex is not shameful, but abuse of power is.


Today is my mom's birthday. She asked for no gifts, just poems. It's a bit too wordy to qualify as a poem, but it's my best effort. So, here's my poem to Mom on her birthday:

Mom and me, sitting around the table, talking, 1974

Thanks, Mom, for encouraging my curiosity. You took me to the public library and taught me how to read. Everything. To be open to ideas and to pay attention to other people's stories. You read aloud to me from both The Bible and Shirley MacLaine's New Agey memoirs. You recommended books by both Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong. You let me check out whatever I wanted to read from the library. You never made fun of me for my interests and obsessions. You taught me that everybody has a story and that one of the best ways to understand someone is to read their words. You made me a reader.

Mom and her wildflowers, circa 1985

Then, you kicked me out of the house and told me to write my own stories. My tortoise pace and weedy path must be excruciatingly annoying for you, more of a hare, to bear, but I'm getting there, Mom. I read other people's stories and I write my own stories every day. I thank you, Mom, for being my first teacher, my role model, and my biggest fan. You made me a writer.

Happy birthday, Mom! I love you.

Gloria Steinem and Other Peace Heroes
img source

How fitting that today is also the "International Women's Day for Peace and Disarmament", and that one of our favorite writer's, Gloria Steinem​, has involved herself in some major badassery. Steinem and about thirty other women peace heroes are marching from South to North Korea today, crossing the DMZ, in the name of peace. As Steinem, 81, says:

“We have accomplished our first goal of meeting woman-to-woman in order to break through barriers to make human connections,” said Steinem. “We achieved what we set out to do, which is to engage in citizen diplomacy.”

Mom, you're no citizen diplomat. You cross no international borders seeking peace. You rarely leave your apartment to go to the grocery store.

Mom doing her favorite thing

You're no famous feminist icon. You're no best-selling memoirist. You're a humble person living a humble life. You've had a couple of shitty husbands, and then one decent one, a psychologically disturbed mother, and a compassionate dad, and then you had a bunch of kids with minds of our own. I don't know how you did it, but you did. You made it. You survived with tears and laughter, through good and bad. You are the hero of your own story. 

Mom sharing her favorite things with my daughter, Katie

You might never show up on the front page of the newspaper or inside the pages of a bestseller, but you're life is heroic. Your human connections, though not made on the global scale, as no less grand. You taught me to love people and listen to their stories, to love myself and to share my own. You are my hero, Mom.

Mom, Katie, and me
Happy birthday, Mom! I love you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Paper Towns by John Green (book review)

Paper TownsPaper Towns by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paper Towns is my favorite John Green novel so far, and that's saying a lot. I've read all of his young adult novels except for Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Let It Snow. I loved Looking for Alaska. I thoroughly enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines. I was disappointed with some aspects of The Fault in Our Stars. I let the hype get to me and so I expected it to be an A+ when it is merely an A. Still, it's an A. But this one--Paper Towns--is my favorite so far. It's both deeply philosophical and extraordinarily gloriously full of sophomoric humor, encompassing two of my favorite things, questions about the meaning of life and dick jokes.

This book is cataloged as a "mystery" in my library's young adult section. I dunno. I think it's too literary to fit neatly into genre fiction. It's less of a story about a guy following clues to his missing wanna-be girlfriend and more of a story about two people opening themselves up to being known, to being understood, and to knowing others, after mistaking next-door-neighborliness for closeness. How Green alludes to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" in the same novel in which he turns a full bladder on a road trip into one of the most laugh-out-loud scenes from a book I've ever read is a mystery to me.

Piss jokes aside, to me the most memorable scene is the one in which the protagonist steps on a tack and forces himself to pick the other tacks up off the floor, despite his emotional and physical fatigue. I was never that sort of teenager. I was the sort of teenager who would have balled up into a fetal position and sobbed about the injustice of stepping on a tack without ever doing anything to get the tacks off my floor. Sure, I've made it through life OK, but damn I sure had to step on a lot of tacks. As I read about this character picking up his tacks, I wanted to shout out, "Yes! This boy is a hero in his own story. He's going to make it." And, as I got to the end of the book, it turns out I was right.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

"Dance with Me" by Astronaut Merit Badge (music review)

song: Dance with Me
artist: Astronaut Merit Badge

Grab your thrift-store cardigans, kids! Get your melancholic asses on the dance floor. Check your neuroses at the door. It's time to party nerdy! The band: Astronaut Merit Badge. The song: "Dance with Me". It's my latest lovely earworm.

The jangly guitar. The catchy, spacey hook. Overall, musically, it's just a pretty dang spiffy song. But it's the darkly mischievous, irony infused lyrics, along with the clearly aching vocals--growing increasingly desperate as the song approaches its climax--that I love the most. I catch myself singing along to this part, especially:
You're always there when I almost push you out of the car. You're always there when I run my mouth, take things way too fuckin far... 
Fans of Morrissey, Weezer, Death Cab for Cutie, maybe a little Cake, a little Radiohead, will dig Astronaut Merit Badge.

Full disclosure: I work with singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott Stone at the library. He's seriously one of the nicest guys I know. But this is no pity review. I'm not telling you to go listen to this song because I think one of the band members is a nice guy. I'm telling you to go listen to this song because it's fuckin fantastic. Further proof that librarians rock.

I hear Astronaut Merit Badge will be playing live soon. Stay tuned for dates and deets. In the meantime, check out their Facebook page here, and their SoundCloud page here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies by Meera Patricia Kerr (book review)

Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger BodiesBig Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies by Meera Patricia Kerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don't let anyone shame you into thinking you're too fat to do yoga. Yoga helps relieve stress, improve flexibility, and reduce aches and pains. If you're too shy to try a yoga class, check out this book and try some poses in the comfort of your own home. Health at Every Size® advocate Dr. Linda Bacon says that one of the healthiest things we can do is to move our bodies "in pleasurable ways". Yoga brings my big body pleasure. If you've got a big body and you want to try yoga, this is the book for you.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn (book review)

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and ReasonUnconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most helpful parenting book I've ever read. Education critic Kohn goes into lots of detail, using stories of his own children as examples, which you'll find in the book (and on the DVD lecture video as well), but let me sum up what I got out of it:

Treat your kids with the same patience, love, and respect as you treat your best friends, your most cherished family members, your honored guests. Don't worry about "spoiling" your child. Repeat: do not worry that your kindness will spoil your child. Smash that outdated idea like a bug and move on with your life. Talk less, listen more. Scold less, have problem-solving conversations more. Treat your kiddo the way you would want to be treated, with caring, calmness, and empathy. Trust kids to make their own decisions. When things don't work out, have a discussion about what worked and what didn't work, and what they could have done differently. Worry less about academic achievement and hitting developmental milestones "on time". Remember what it was like to be a kid. Step back and reflect. Don't just assume your kids know you love them unconditionally. Tell your kids you will love them no matter what and that they can talk to you about anything.

Seriously. Parenting is hard. We all need help. I've read lots of parenting advice, and for me, Kohn's words ring the most true.

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"I Can't Said the Ant" by Polly Cameron (book review)

"I Can't," Said the Ant by Polly Cameron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that, when your child shouts, "read it again" you won't want to gouge out your eyes. This was my favorite book when I was a kiddo growing up in the 1970s. We checked it out from the library over and over until finally, when I was pregnant with my own daughter in 2006, Mom found an old copy on ebay and gave it to me at my baby shower. Now my daughter and I love to read it over and over again.

This is a cozy, quaint story of an ant underdog who thinks it can't lift the teapot that's lying on the kitchen floor back up to the sink all by itself. But with the help of cheerleading, culinary friends--from a scallion who wants to form a battalion to an anxious slab of beef who speaks for us all when it shouts "what a relief!"--and "an army of ants and a spider or two" the ant overcomes all odds to win the day. A "Little Engine That Could" tale, told in clever rhyme and set in an old-timey kitchen. The simple red and white illustrations might leave kids today wondering where all the color is, but hearing you read the story aloud will make up for the rather bland illustrations. On the other hand, this is a great lap book for young artists who like to geek out looking at other people's detailed drawings.

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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (book review)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This "Bird" book just barreled its way into my top ten favorite books of all time. I mean, Dude, seriously. I spontaneously burst into tears of joy at the end of this, uh hem, writing guide. Who does that? With a writing guide? I'm here to tell you: you will, too.

Don't let the subtitle fool you. This is much more of a guide to life than a guide to writing. It's less of a how-to-write-well-and-get-published guide and more of a guide to finding balance and peace and somehow maintaining your sanity while living the life of a writer who wants to write well and get published but who may or may not ever achieve that goal and then what? It's about getting past the fantasies of becoming a published author and getting your butt planted into the chair to do the hard work that is writing. It's about writing because you love to, writing because you have to, writing because it makes life better, if not a tiny bit crazy. I especially loved the chapters on how to deal with your jealousy and how to listen to your broccoli, Lamott's nickname for your intuition. Highly recommended to anyone who loves to write, to read, or simply, to live.

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Invisible Girl by Mariel Hemingway (book review)

Invisible GirlInvisible Girl by Mariel Hemingway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the book:

"No matter what your problem is, it isn't only your problem. Families have troubles because they are made up of people, and people are complicated...Kids are sometimes the most observant members of families because they aren't loaded down with all the baggage that comes with being an adult. They might not have the experience and wisdom to know how to fix problems, but they're fully aware of them..."

Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of literary giant Ernest Hemingway, recounts in diary-like detail what it's like to grow up in a famously dysfunctional family. Older teens might find the narrator, who still calls her parents "Mommy" and "Daddy" when she's fourteen, too babyish. Highly recommended for tweens and young teens who struggle with eating disorders, OCD, alcoholic and drug addicted family members, and parents who have a serious illness such as cancer. Despite the depressing topics, this evocative memoir is full of hope, empowering young people to talk openly about their struggles and to take charge of their own mental health journey, breaking free from the cycle of family dysfunction.

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Friday, May 8, 2015


***trigger warning: child sexual abuse***

Three things converged this week, making me think that the Universe is trying to tell me something.
  1. The documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck finally came out and IT WAS AMAZING, just as I imagined. 
  2. I finished reading Anne Lamott's brilliantly funny and honest and NECESSARY book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
  3. I changed jobs at the public library where I've worked my entire adulthood. After twenty-two years of working in adult services, I'm now a Youth Information Specialist. Does this mean it's time for my second childhood?
These three things have nudged me over the cliff of indecision. I've changing my mind about something big. I no longer want to be famous.

I can't remember the exact time I decided that I wanted to be famous, but it was sometime during my awful teenage years. Most likely while locked inside my bedroom, lying in bed crying, having just read the last page of a book or watched the credits roll on a movie or heard the scratch of the needle coming to the end of an album. 

I want to write books like that.
I want to star in films like that.
I want to sing songs like that.

As an isolated and angry misfit, my best friends were fictional characters. And their creators. I imagined I'd grow up, write a book, act in a film, release an album, and then I'd become friends with all the other creative artists and celebrities I admired. I'd have finally found my people. My tribe. I would feel like I belong to something bigger than myself. Something important and immortal. Sure, I'd die like everybody else some day, but my words would live on through the ages.

When I quit working full-time at the library nearly four years ago, I decided to spend my extra time at home, writing. I had an idea for a book. My brother, Pat, had died a few months earlier. Supporting him through his illness and watching him die sucked the life from me. I'm prone to clinical depression anyway, so when my brother died it hit me good and hard. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't eat. I couldn't care for my child. I couldn't enjoy my husband or my friends or anyone. 

Leave me alone. This is what I need.

The only thing that got me out of bed was writing. 

By July 2011 I had written a full length manuscript of an autobiographical novel about my brother's death. I talked it over with my husband, and my doctor (it was actually her idea). The plan was this: I'd take a part-time job, 24 hours a week, at the library. I'd use the other sixteen hours a week to tidy up my manuscript and pitch it to some literary agents.

I laugh now when I think back on it. Will and I sitting in our basement talking it over. Surely I should be able to find an agent within about six months or so. From then on out, it's riches and fame for me!

As Anne Lamott quips in Bird by Bird ,“If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

Actually, for me, it wasn't about the riches. I think it was about the riches a teeny, tiny bit for my husband Will. I think he'd love it if I sold a book and made six figures and we could finally paint his 1956 Chevy pickup truck that sits in our driveway. Maybe even put a working engine in it. Or buy some more gear for his music. Not really riches, per se, but, you know, nice things. I think he'd also love it if I sold a book and made six figures so he could cut back his hours at work to focus more on his own creative pursuits. Fair enough.

For me it was not about riches. Sure, I'd love to pay off the mortgage to our little 935 square foot house so we'd live more worry-free. I'd like to pay off my student loans. I'd like to be able to get my muffler fixed, and maybe have someone install one of those big bathtubs with bubble jets in our house. I'd allow myself that luxury. But I'm not too fancy. Even if I did sell a book, you'd never find me on the back cover dripping in jewels and wearing fashionable clothes.

For me, it was less about the riches and more about the fame. I crave attention. I love to write because it makes me feel good inside. I also love to write because people tell me I'm good at it. I crave praise like a preschooler holding a stick-figure drawing up to your face.

Look what I made!

It doesn't take a lot of psychological insight to understand that I crave attention because it's difficult to come by when you're the youngest sibling of a big bunch of creative geniuses. Seriously. It's really hard to feel good about yourself when all your brothers and sisters have already had the good ideas long before it was your turn at the family talent show. Imagine being the baby sister of Dorothy Parker, or Andy Warhol, or John Lennon. I mean, shit. I had no chance.

I think that's why I became a writer instead of a visual artist or actor. I can observe all the creative geniuses around me and use them in my stories. My sister Kit once got me this awesome t-shirt that says, "You realize this will end up in my blog, right?" 

So back in July 2011 when I set out to sell my first manuscript, I COULD NOT WAIT for the wild rumpus of praise and fame to begin.

It never did.

So, you know. Big ole change of plans.

I still write. I won't give that up. It's just that I'm no longer actively searching for an agent. It distracts me from the real purpose of writing: sharing stories, telling secrets, setting myself free. I've discovered that I love to write for writing's sake. It's exciting to see what comes out of the tips of my fingers as I sit back and let my broccoli take over. (That's an Anne Lamott reference. If you have not read Bird by Bird yet, stop right now and go read that book.) I love to share my writing on my blog because it gets me modest attention, from mostly friends and family, the best kind of attention, but also because of the crazy amazing feeling I get when someone messages me that they read one of my posts and it made their life better in some small but meaningful way. Helping other people makes me feel better about myself. When I can combine writing for myself and then sharing it with others who find meaning in it--wowza. That's the best feeling a writer can have. Paid or unpaid. Famous or underground. I don't need fame for that.

Searching for fame left my soul feeling famished. Part of the problem is that I like to write about horribly depressing topics. I like to write about what you're not supposed to talk about. I like to write about things that make you feel uncomfortable. Not exactly best-seller material. So it was an uphill battle, trying to convince a literary agent to sign me on, to help find a publisher for my manuscript about a woman whose brother, who had long ago sexually abused her, just drank himself to death and how she struggles with whether or not she should share the secret of this abuse, something that would free her soul while tarnishing his.

Yeah, I know. Who wants to read that? Even I got sick of reading the manuscript after a few tries. I shoved it into the back of my desk and decided to try it from another angle.

Memoir. I wrote a full-length manuscript about my brother, who had long ago sexually abused me, and how he'd just drunk himself to death and I struggled with whether or not I should share the secret of this abuse, something that would free my soul while tarnishing his.

It didn't sell either. Geez. I thought anybody could publish a memoir these days.

Then I started to think about what I was doing. I had written this confessional story of family abuse and dysfunction with the goal of getting it published and becoming rich and famous. Gross. How icky is that? What kind of person tries to sell her story to a publisher to make money off her pain? So I gave up and started posting my stories on my blog. I get paid about $.01 per day, so it's not gonna get Will's truck painted any time soon, but I have full control over what stories I share.

As a blogger, I came out of the closet as a sexual abuse survivor, a gay Christian, and as someone who struggles with mental illness. It was scary at first. But scary and exhilarating at the same time, like riding your first roller coaster. You feel like you might die, but then when you don't, you feel more alive than ever. I was finally able to share secrets that lifted me out of my depressive bed. I let people see my life from my point of view. 

Look, I'm definitely crazy , but I matter.

I just want to love and to be loved. Why is it so hard?

Hey, look at me! I made it! I survived.

And then they respond. My readers.

I feel that way, too!

Your story reminds me of mine...

I thought I was the only one who felt that way.

My blog has brought me riches and fame in ways I never new possible. It's unpaid labor and the fame it garners is quiet and respectful, mostly private messages or public comments thanking me for my honesty and my courage to talk about uncomfortable, but universal, things. It's just the right fit for me.

Watching the Kurt Cobain documentary this week made me realize that the dream of being famous I once had is a dream I've outgrown. I have a more settled, balanced, at-peace adult life. I have support. I no longer feel like I need the whole world to love me. Just the people in my own little word, my husband, my daughter, my friends, my blog readers. I wish Cobain had lived long enough to find that kind of peace for himself.

In the film Cobain is portrayed as a young, sad, misfit who kills himself when he can't handle life despite the riches and fame his genius art has brought him. His friends, his loved ones, his child. None of them could save him. None of them could bring him peace. He was the only one who could do that. And I understand how difficult it is to find peace within while living in this world. As Cobain's sister Kim says in the film, thank God I didn't get that Genius Brain.

I'd add, thank God I didn't become famous. 

Then, after watching the Cobain documentary, I read these words in Lamott's book, Bird by Bird:
"...when this book of mine came out, the one that did pretty well...I found myself stoned on all the attention, and then lost and derailed, needing a new fix every couple of days and otherwise going into withdrawal. My insides became completely uninhabitable, as if I'd wandered into a penny arcade with lots of bells ringing and lights flashing and lots of junk food, and I'd been there too long. I wanted peace, peace and quiet, but at the same time I didn't want to leave. I was like one of those bad boys in 'Pinocchio' who flock to the island of pleasure and grow donkey ears. I knew my soul was sick and that I needed spiritual advice, and I knew also that this advice shouldn't be terribly sophisticated. So I went to see the pastor of my son's preschool. 
"...I said that I was all over the place, up and down, scattered, high, withdrawing, lost, and in the midst of it all trying to find some elusive sense of serenity. 'The world can't give that serenity,' he said. 'The world can't give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.' 
"'I hate that,' I said. 
"'I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can't take it away.'"
Fame would do me in. What was I thinking? When I was a misfit teenager, I really thought if I could trick everyone in the world into loving me I'd finally feel good about myself. Turns out, I was wrong. I had to find a way to feel good about myself by myself.

And I did find a way. I feel good about myself when I'm helping other people. Especially shorties. I discovered how much I love to work with children. Children are the best kinds of people. Honest. Emotional. Intuitive. They haven't been around long enough to understand all your culturally indoctrinated neurotic bullshit. They just think you're funny and silly and they want you to read them a story and sing them a song. Maybe break out some crayons and paper from time to time. Simple as that.

So this new job I have--guess what I get to do? I get to read stories to kiddos. I get to teach these children that they are important. Their curious minds are special and worthy of my attention. My new position at the library, as a Youth Information Specialist, is just the right fit for me at this time in my life. I've discovered something that feels even better than getting attention. Giving it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

God loves Bruce Jenner

A year ago, at age 43, I got baptized and joined a church after a lifetime of distrust and disgust with organized religion. I used to joke whenever I'd find myself entering a House of God for friends' and family members' weddings and baptisms and other celebratory events that I would most likely spontaneously combust upon crossing the threshold. I never did, but it was funny to think of God striking my heathen ass dead for daring to enter His house unclean, impure, unbaptized.

I didn't really believe all that. I knew God and I were fine. My idea of God, not the judgy, authoritarian, bearded white guy in the sky. My idea of God--not a he or a she, just the One source of energy that's within everyone and everything, the creator of the universe if you can wrap your head around that, which I cannot. For me, God is just shorthand for the energy that connects us. On my more spiritually uncertain days, God is simply the star stuff that make us who we are, star stuff that has been around since the Big Bang. On my more spiritually hopeful days, God is Love.

I didn't need a church to tell me that.

It was God's followers--the people who built the church and had the keys to the door and the certainty of faith to tell me and my gay friends how we should live our lives--those were the people I was afraid would hit some sort of prayer jackpot by getting God to strike me with lightning bolts whenever I'd find myself entering a church back in the days before I joined one.

My mom, a Catholic who left the church after she divorced her first husband, claims she baptized me herself in our kitchen sink when I was an infant. I think most people would call that taking a bath, but I accepted her gesture with gratitude. I wouldn't have had it any other way. It certainly beat being baptized by some religious leader who didn't understand me. At least Mom tried. We stopped going to church right after I was old enough to leave the nursery and start falling asleep in the pews, so I was completely homeschooled in my religious education by my mom who read The Bible and Shirley MacLaine's Out on a Limb with equal fervor. My friends would ask their moms why they had such a fear of snakes, and their moms would quote from The Bible. I asked my mom why she thinks I'm so terrified of mice and she said I was probably tortured with rodents in a past life.

I thank God every day for handing me over to my mom for the first 18 years of my life, instead of some of the other moms I met. Mom has her flaws, as everyone does, but she was a good fit for me. She made me feel like she would love me no matter what. Even when I was driving her crazy. Even when I felt my most unlovable. I could kill someone and she might give me a bad look, but she'd secretly think they deserved it. I could talk to my mom about anything. Sex. Death. Divorce. Anything. She didn't have the answers and often questioned why I cared so much about things I had no control over, but she never told me to quit asking questions.

Growing up with a curious brain inside my head, between ears that heard all the anti-gay, anti-women, anti-other rhetoric from the church leaders on the news was enough to keep me out of church. What brought me to it was my little girl. After attending my step-father's funeral in the fall of 2013, my then-seven-year-old, Katie, asked if we could go to church some time. I'm all about exposing my child to enriching life experiences, so I said sure, why not. I figured it'd be like taking her to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art or the Deanna Rose Farmstead or Wonderscope. Some place we could explore until Katie's curiosity sated and we moved on to the next interesting place. I figured I'd be there right next to her, able to talk her through it, to cover her eyes during the scary parts, and assure her the stories are metaphors--fiction--like the ones we tell about Santa and The Easter Bunny. I'd be there to erase the dogma from her mind before it got a chance to stick.

What I didn't figure was that we'd both want to keep coming back each week for more. How open-minded the congregation is. How the church encourages critical thinking and inspires curiosity. It was like taking my kid to storytimes at the library, only with the budget for snacks such as bread and wine.

Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, is nothing like any church I'd ever been to before. So when they asked me if I wanted to join, I said sure, why not.

My many irreligious friends think I'm insane. Well, insaner. They don't understand the point of rolling out of bed on a Sunday morning to hang out with a bunch of like-minded people who are so loosey-goosey about their religious beliefs that the only thing they take literally from The Bible is Jesus' command for us to love all people.

"I don't need a church to tell me to love people," my friends say.

And they are right. I don't need a church, either. What I've found is that my church needs me. Oh my goodness. I've been suckered into so much stuff, and I love it all. VBS preschool storyteller. Preschool Sunday School teacher. Set design for our kiddos' musical. Now I've been asked to join the rotation of greeters. We stand and the door and smile and welcome you. Who the hell am I to stand at a church door, welcoming people? But that's just it. I'm welcome to welcome people at this church. Me. The chick who used to joke that she'd burst into flames if she set foot in a church.

And it's all because I said, sure, why not. I think people in our culture could benefit from more sure, why not in their lives. So often we lump ourselves into categories, affix labels to our souls, when really, being open brings us understanding and connection.

I should share with you a little secret. I didn't come up with my sure, why not philosophy on my own. It's the exact phrase my husband Will said when I asked him to marry me. It was so brilliant. So simple. Such a perfect response to my spontaneous question. Actually, it wasn't a question at all. More of a statement, or an observation. We were just lying there in bed, the two of us, talking and laughing. Out of nowhere, without giving it any thought, I smiled and said, "We should get married," like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Sure, why not," Will said without hesitation.

It's like something outside of us knew we should commit to each other even if we were unaware. Neither of us at the time went to church or thought much about God. But now that I look back on it, I think our little sure, why not moment was God giving us a nudge.

I love being married to Will, even though before I met him I had shrugged off married life. I didn't think it was for me. It was too traditional. Too stifling. Too rule-oriented. I'd been though too many romantic rough patches to think I was capable of being a good wife.

In a similar way, I had shrugged off religious life. It was fine for other people. Just not me. But then when I sure, why notted my ass into this particular church, I discovered that religious life has meaning for me.

If you think you might find some meaning from religious life, but you also might be a teensy bit afraid you'll burst into flames upon setting foot inside a church, you're in luck. You don't even have to get up off the couch. I invite you to listen to this excellent example of what it's like to attend my church. Sure, the church is known for our charity, our social justice work, our peace-making deeds in our community and around the planet. But we've also got this awesome, literate pastor--Pastor Jonas, the man of faith who I finally trusted enough to baptize me. Jonas writes amazingly complex and insightful sermons about things like how God wants us to love Bruce Jenner. I'm not kidding. Listen to his sermon, "The Kin-dom of God" here.

Friday, May 1, 2015

I'm not just certifiable, now I'm certified!

***trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempt***

I was five years old, running, screaming through the empty house, calling out for Mommy, wondering where she was, what had happened, if my brother was right and they had come to take her away, back to the hospital, so she could rest and recuperate, another nervous breakdown, all my fault because I told her, the secret my brother told me not to tell, about him and his friend and and and...their disgusting boy parts touching my body in ways that made me shout no and get shushed and warned again that we don't want to upset Mommy. I flung myself into the closet and cried myself to sleep until Mommy got home and found me and hugged me and kissed me and showed me she wasn't in the hospital and that she was there with me and not gone, that she had just left me alone for a minute while I was asleep, while she ran my brother to school, so she wouldn't have to disturb me. When I lay there in Mommy's arms, listening to her trying to find ways to comfort me, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was in third grade. Standing on the scale in front of a room full of grownup women I didn't know, so embarrassed, so ashamed, so disappointed in myself. I would listen to everything they told me, follow all the rules, and I would lose weight and I would make Mom and Dad proud of me. As I sat there planning my escape from Weight Watchers, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was eleven. Everybody was mad at me. Everybody kept yelling at me, or worse--crying--and telling me if I didn't start eating again I could die. As I sat there in my first therapist's office, the one who I'd been referred to after the doctor diagnosed me with anorexia after I had passed out in school, as I sat there in her office, shrugging my shoulders, trying to stop shivering, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was a teenager, locked inside our bathroom, sobbing, calling my mom at work to see if she could come home and break up a fight between my dad and me. When I sat there on the bathroom floor, staring at the knife in my hand, wondering if I had the guts to use it on him, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was a teenager, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, staring into the cabinet underneath the sink, thinking that I could do it, I could end the pain right then and there, by swallowing the contents of that can of Drano. Bye, bye, Becky. This shit works on stubborn clogs. This shit will work on you. When I sat there sobbing, listening to my inner self-hatred tell me it was the only way out, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

I was in my early-twenties. After I swallowed a bottle of my prescription Paxil, my girlfriend found me and called 911. On the ambulance ride to the ER. Cold and metal. And then inside the ER. I sat up high, on a bed, on white sheets, in a fog, answering the nurse's questions in between throwing up in a bucket she was holding in front of me after she had me swallow some nasty charcoal crap, listening to her telling me it was going to be OK, that I probably just wigged out because I was on my period and it was a full moon. I wanted to complain that she was pathologizing my femininity, that I had deep pain that was real, that was serious. But instead, while I sat there silent, dumbfound, wondering how the hell I could get out of there, I never would have dreamed some day I would be someone people like me could turn to for help with their mental illness.

But I am. After over four-decades, I have become that person. I am someone people like me can turn to for help with their mental illness. Seriously. I took a class.

Well, that and spent my adulthood getting my shit together through a mixture of introspection, blogging, medication, meditation, exercise, body respect, and lots and lots of help from my husband, my friends and family and numerous mental health professionals.

But that's a long story, much longer than I have time to share now, so instead, let's focus on the class. 

In the class I learned that 90% of all youths who experience a mental health crisis fully recover. No longer are people with certifiable mental illnesses destined to spend their lives locked up in the loony bin. Many of us grow up to lead rich, fulfilling lives. Some of us get to the point where we're able to help others. The more we share our stories of mental illness, the more we detach the stigma associated with mental illness, the more we understand that mental illness is a common, treatable health issue similar to diabetes or other physical diseases, the more we can help others who might otherwise try to suffer though it alone.

So, I, Becky Carleton, who has in her lifetime been diagnosed by various doctors over the years with a wide array of mental illnesses ranging from anorexia to PTSD, am hereby not just certifiable, but certified to help our youth in crisis find the help they need. 

my certificate from Youth Mental Health First Aid
From the site:
"Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. Youth Mental Health First Aid is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a 5-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD), and eating disorders."
I found out about this program from a flier sent home from my daughter's school. If you're interested in the program, you can find a course here.