Slow conversations

Since I have come back to one of my favorite hobbies, reading, I have made some observations about how I enter into and sustain a conversation. I don’t mean a conversation with one person, like a phone call, but instead a large multi-faceted conversation that occurs with the written word.

I love how books delve into a topic from the inside out – the ideas slowly form over the minutes and hours. They take their form from a crisp piece of paper to a well-blended watercolor.

Social media has been knocked down several notches in my list of priorities. For a long time, I participated in Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I even remember when Myspace was a thing. If you want the hot take about what’s going on in the world, with opinions and facts alike, social media is the place to go. There are innumerable topics and everyone’s got an opinion about them.

The problem with social media is that the ideas are shallow, underdeveloped, and under-researched. Notwithstanding, I get a broad view of the topic, not all that unlike pulling up Google Earth to get a view of the (very round) world.

Social media is designed to show me ever-increasing amounts of things that I agree with or topics I can’t get enough of (more homesteading videos, anyone?), but books are self-selected. While I may read many books about the same topic, there are naturally other ideas woven in, in a way that contextually makes sense.

I was concerned that opting out of most social media meant that I would be missing out (I could write a lot about this). I wouldn’t have a pulse on what’s going on in the world. I’d be off in my own little bubble, oblivious to the pain and grief as well as positive events of the world.

However, I’ve found that reading has brought me to a much more balanced understanding of the conversations happening in the world. I like to call these “slow conversations.” I can take my time to develop my own thoughts and opinions on a topic – recently top choices have been religion, spiritual deconstruction, and Arctic adventures.

Reading also provides ample fodder for ideas about writing – this post is a good example. There’s so much to discuss about books – the topic itself, the author, inferring the author’s inspiration or purpose, meta-discussion like this one. Social media sharing usually ends up spurring a divisive discussion that doesn’t last long – either someone’s right or wrong.

Instead of ransacking the ideas people blast at full volume on social media, I can carefully observe each idea and decide for myself whether or not to add it to my personal repertoire. It’s the difference between consuming French-press coffee from a ceramic mug and a sugary frozen beverage that’s gone in mere minutes.

Reading Goals and Contemplations for 2021

Here we are, another day, another post about reading. I’ve never really regularly written about my reading… ever. I think when I was younger, I was so unsure of myself as a reader, and trying to pretend I loved reading when it was all I could do to pay attention, read the Cliff Notes (for some books), and regurgitate information in class.

I was actually in the high-level English classes in high school, but I think it was because I was a really good test-taker. If I were to be asked to provide exposition about a particular book, I’d fall flat on my face. I relied on my smart classmates to provide that for me so I could jot it down in my notes for the eventual test.

To be honest, I’m not sure what all has changed in the past few years that I’ve been so interested and devouring books, especially this year. Maybe I’ll do a post soon about my 2020 stats. I’m still balls-deep in the Mistborn trilogy. Today is my first day of winter break (perks of being a teacher!) so I will definitely spend a chunk of time reading. I have so many thoughts…

Besides perhaps being more mature, one thing that has helped immensely in my rekindled love of reading is that people are out there talking about books. Some of our Maryland friends are huge readers and so they talk about things they read. I have discovered BookTube. My husband has been reading fantasy since he was a wee lad. My immediate family are big readers, too. So I have a lot of great influence and accountability, if I want it.

So… 2021. What’s on tap? With a gift card I received for Christmas I’ve ordered The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and Ship of Magic. These are all well-regarded books in the adult fantasy genre, ones that I’ve heard mentioned over and over. I generally don’t buy books, especially hardcovers, when I’m not sure if I will like it or not. A house project we have coming up is to install better bookshelves in the front room – so, of course more beautiful books to fill them won’t be a bad thing.

With the books I mentioned, I will delve into the writing of three new-to-me authors: V. E. Schwab, Scott Lynch, and Robin Hobb. I don’t know much about V. E. Schwab other than her books are lit. Scott Lynch wrote the introduction to a book I read recently for book club (Dragon Waiting by the late John M. Ford), and I won’t lie: I was so excited about his writing style that I wished the actual book had been written by him! I have also heard nothing but great things about Robin Hobb, a female author. Maybe I will also read the Farseer trilogy that she wrote.

I have also preordered the new Sarah J. Maas book that I think will be released in February, A Court of Silver Flames. This is the fourth book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series that I absolutely devoured end of 2019 through the beginning of 2020. Naturally, because it will have been a year since I completed those books, I should reread them, not only to have the events and characters in my mind, but also because they are such fun books to read.

I anticipate that I will read much more fantasy. Who knows.. maybe I’ll get into more of the Cosmere and read Way of Kings et al. I will be beginning two series with the Scott Lynch and Robin Hobb books, so I’ll have a natural TBR set up if I like those. I might continue with the Outlander series since I’ve had the fourth book on my monthly TBR for, well, months.

And then, of course, is the book club I belong to where we read award-winning fantasy and sci-fi. The first book of 2021 will be A Memory Called Empire, a space opera with indigenous Mexican vibes. I’m here for it. Never thought I’d say that about a fantasy or sci-fi book, but here we are. I will probably get started on it soon after I finish Mistborn.

As far as a number of books to read, I’m unsure about this goal. In 2020, my goal was 40 books, which for me at the time was realistic but still pushing it. So far, as of December 23, I’ve read 64 books. What. The. Heck. That’s more than a book a week. Even if I don’t include my DNF’s, that’s still more than a book a week. I guess 2020 was made for reading.

In 2021, I will also aim to discover more about why the genre of fantasy has appealed to me so much outside of the fact that it’s a convenient and fun escape from the current world we live in. It’s certainly not the only reason, though. Stay tuned!

Meta post

On this blog, you get a little bit of everything. Some reminiscing and retelling of memories. Some analysis of grief. Some water cooler chat – shooting the shit about teaching. Some talk of books, a little of which is actually coherent.

Despite my best efforts to be “on” 95% of the time, it’s just not humanly possible. I’ve had this ridiculous standard for myself for a very long time. Adhering to this standard has made me successful, and I think it’s also been my downfall.

Tonight I feel pressure to write, so that I can stay consistent with my Wednesday/Sunday schedule. It’s okay, though, pressure is actually what propels and motivates me (most of the time). For other things outside of writing, like running, it’s just not very effective anymore. I think I killed that motor, honestly.

After a week of the national election, news about spiking COVID cases, and participating in the collective… grief? sadness? anxiety? of our society, I am just straight up worn out. I think last week I was headed upstairs to bed by 7:45 or 8:00. Granted, I do have to get up early for work, but that’s just ridiculously early.

I’ve been trying to find a term for the fatigue that I’m feeling, and I came across “COVID-19 Caution Fatigue” (see full description here). I think the biggest cause is a long drawn-out fight against an enemy that is intangible but deadly, invisible but definitely real. And the fight is endless.

One thing that’s helped me cope is taking it day by day. As trite as that sounds, that’s my coping mechanism for different periods of grief in my life – loved ones passing, infertility, deployment (not so much grief as stress, but I think it could be included somehow). All of those instances are events without timetables (even deployment was iffy..).

All of those events make us draw on inner strength, if we have it. If we’ve been exercising the muscle. And how would you know to exercise that muscle unless you’ve been through something like that? Those events also make us reach out to others. A global pandemic is arguably the most difficult – we by definition cannot “reach out”. Thank God for technology, right?

I’m still not drinking, by the way, and it’s quite a miracle. I spent so much time thinking about it that I would have probably spent less time actually doing it. And just yesterday I had a huge revelation about drinking… and food. And my relationship to them. But that’s for another entry in the annals of 2020.

So for the foreseeable future, my strategies are:

Caffeine. 95% in the form of coffee or espresso, most of the time by 9 am, most often through a beautiful vessel called a French press.

Reading. Is stress reading a thing? I’m now on to the next Witcher book and highly enjoying it. I can’t wait to finish rewatching Season 1 on Netflix

Sleeping. Yes, I think I need more sleep. Or at least more downtime that might turn into more sleep. What time is it? 6:51 pm? Shoot, too early for bed…

(And yes, I’m fully aware that my caffeine consumption could be harming my sleeping efforts. It is what it is, and that’s also why I’m cutting out any extra cups at work.)

Intermittent fasting. It’s all the rage right now. Honestly, the science behind it doesn’t really motivate me. It’s the fact that I don’t have to obsessively count calories (that is, the only way I do it) and I can still eat the things I want within reason. I don’t have to spend time in the morning prepping breakfast, and I can begin snacking in the late morning. When I stick to it, it works for me.

Cooking. This goes right along with the above topic. I love cooking. Spending a couple hours making a delicious meal after work is one of my favorite things to do. Enjoying the fruits of my labor for a few days afterwards in the form of leftovers is my second favorite thing to do. It’s also great for current times. I try to keep my pantry well-stocked so that I have everything to make comfort food like dairy-free tuna noodle casserole with my homemade cream of ___. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.) Cooking also gives me something to look forward to every day and keeps me in the moment

…and I don’t think my husband minds, either.

What happens when you read fiction or fantasy

Like I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I haven’t always been a big reader. I’ve always aspired to be a big reader, maybe even faking it once or twice, but never like my sister. Or my mom. Or even some of the kids in my family.

Truth be told, up until a couple years ago, I never really saw the benefits of reading fiction, and definitely not fantasy. I think my exact words to my therapist were, “It’s a waste of time to read stories that aren’t real.” Well, friends, I stand corrected. And sometimes I have to teach fiction so it’s helpful to everybody for me to read all the time…. right?

One. You learn about places you’ve either been to… or places you want to go. I’m not sure who would read Outlander and then decide they don’t want to go to Scotland. That is, unless you really hate cool rainy weather, endless precipitous sea cliffs, and amazing history. Last month I read Magic Lessons, and I think I fell in love a little more with the Northeast/East Coast region where we live now. We’ve been here about five years, and when we first arrived I wasn’t thrilled, but it is home and there’s so much to love about it. While reading the book, I kept having flashbacks to my short stay in Providence, Rhode Island last year in October. Even though the story was about witches (or because it was about witches?), it gave me a warm cozy feeling. But, Elizabeth, what about places like the Shire? Or Hogwarts? Well, those places can exist in our minds and through our imagination we can have experiences there.

Two. You see real people as complex as the characters you read about. There’s a story arc, character development. Sometimes it takes characters years to develop into their final form, and even then, even after the last page of a series, there’s still a question in your mind of, What if? I think this point is super important because in our world right now, it is so easy and even encouraged to demonize others. When a member of my family was getting out of a bad situation, I kept reminding myself that no person is either 100% good or 100% bad, even the perpetrator. Call it human nature, call it whatever you want, but we are all complex and subject to the human condition, even the murderer Jack Glass. People you may meet now may seem to be two-dimensional or in a plateau of their own personal development, but you have no idea the extent of the life they lived before your life lines intersected. And even our beloved characters in books – there is obviously a story before and after the tiny part of their lives that we see as readers. We meet Harry Potter when he’s 11 and follow his story until he’s 18, but when about when he turns 21? Or 25? Or, gasp, 30? There are innumerable events and chance meetings in his life that can change him still.

Three. Your vocabulary deepens. Research shows that it takes many encounters of a word before it makes it into our vocabulary, maybe even 15-20. Despite the research surrounding literacy and language acquisition, I believe there’s a kind of alchemy that happens in our brain when we read, and eventually those words will make it into our writing, speaking, and even into our imaginations or dreams. Of course, there is vocabulary acquisition that happens during phases of listening, like with podcasts. But I think reading is starkly different from listening to a podcast in that you are the one who adds inflection, who pauses when necessary to mull over something, and you make your own context by the sections you reread.

Four. You have something interesting to talk about… all the time. Even if all you’re reading is historical romantic fantasy, there’s still lots to discuss – characters, settings, and relationships among the characters, even reading habits. If you can get past the conversation where people low-key shame you for having enough time to read a whole book and talk about how horrible they are for not reading, it can be super enlightening to have these conversations. And another perk is that often they have absolutely nothing to do with current events or politics – for once can we talk about things that are not on Facebook??

Perhaps these amorphous conversations evolve into an organized book club. Without a doubt, telling other people about what you read strengthens your own comprehension skills because you’re retelling a story you read with your audience and purpose in mind – maybe it’s being simplified for a child, or someone who’s not as into fantasy as you are. Maybe you cannot stop talking about a book you read (as I am with Court of Thorns and Roses or The Bear and the Nightingale) and you’re trying to persuade someone to read it. That right there is considering your audience and purpose.

Five. You relax your brain and your body. For me, reading can be meditative. Right now, I read when I wake up (after taking the dog and during consumption of a French press). And I let reading put me to sleep. Maybe it’s that I didn’t have bedtimes stories read to me past the age of about 5, but I love being all cozy in bed with a book. The house is quiet, the dog is snoring. It’s like Christmas Eve every night. For just a little while, I can escape.

Five. You introduce yourself to new or possibly contrary ideas from what you know, or what you subconsciously believe. This has probably been the most instrumental thing that’s happened to me as I’ve really become a reader. You’re introduced to relationships you don’t know much about (such as in LGBTQ-affirming books like I’ll Give You the Sun) and decisions made that you don’t agree with, like in Tidelands, but you also can’t fully comprehend. This point of course applies to nonfiction, and this was a big reason I read nonfiction for so long. I wanted to know more, more, more information about a topic. The difference is that I would get stuck on one idea, like when I went through my Mt. Everest phase, and then I would be reluctant to read about new ideas.

I want to conclude with a quote from On Tyranny, a cute little but powerful book I picked up from our library sale…

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

-Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Books have souls

I had convinced myself that I really loved reading. That I was a voracious bookworm, just itching at every chance to read whatever book had a sad-looking folded up bookmark in the pages. I convinced myself that dog-earing a page in a book was a travesty, and that turning the page not from the bottom corner was senseless mutilation.

I realized only a few years ago that I’d convinced myself of lots of lies about books. I was in love with the idea of reading, curling up on the couch with a blanket and beverage, and just getting lost in the pages. I saw myself in a sunlit room encapsulated by smartly stocked bookshelves with books just waiting to jump off the shelves and land in my lap.

How deceived I was.

The problem was that I lacked an internal motivation to read. Sure, it looked great when I logged “Read” on my Goodreads (one of the best apps in my opinion, btw). Wow, I started a book that was at least 300 pages on December 20 and finished it on December 22? Go me. You love to read.

Wrong.

It wasn’t until I was reading some wisdom from writer Rosie Leizrowice that I realized what my internal motivation could be. Forgive me because even after perusing some of her essays I cannot find the exact quote, but she wrote something about how we take a piece of each book we read with us. Books form us, they color the world we see. And I say, the reason we’re drawn to books is because the story has us as the star.

Once I realized that and started to believe it, I really got down with some books on my couch. Over my winter break I read no fewer than 4 books. Four books in 12 days for me is no small feat. That means, folks, that I actually had to be focused on something for a lot period of time. Something that I had to make come alive in my head, put a voice to.

Once I realized that my squirrelly mind could be occupied by a book long after I finished it, I began (again) to like to read. Now that I understand that my life can be informed and transformed by what I read, it’s interesting to me (again). And dare I, the nonfiction lover of all time, say that I even see a purpose in reading fiction.

To be truthful, I did have a bit of external motivation for my little tryst over winter break. I wanted a damn coffee mug from the library for completing the winter challenge. Committing to the challenge hearkened back to summers spent riding my bike to and from the library to check out books, most of which I actually wanted nothing to do with, and fill up lines on a piece of paper for a small prize.

Still in the dead of winter, I sit on my couch with my blanket and (new!) mug, actually reading because I want to. Imagine.