"There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage."
--Martin Luther

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Top Ten Tuesday:Favourite (And Least Favourite) Couples From Recent Books

Happy Valentine's Day, friends! Here's a true Valentine's story from my life: One year in high school, some friends and I were in a coffee shop. I thought my friend Beverly was standing next to me because I caught a flash of her blue coat, so when I noticed some paper hearts decorating the walls, I turned, wiggled my eyebrows suggestively, and said, "It's almost Valentine's Day". Turns out it was a middle aged man. Oops. Now that you've lived through my shame of twenty years past, it's time for the weekly love-themed link up. Today we're posting TTT lists with a Valentine's theme, so I'll be writing about my favourite and least favourite literary couples. I decided to go with books that I read within the last few years rather than all-time favourites, because as much as I love Lizzie and Darcy, it may be time to give some other couples a chance in the spotlight.

1. Ove and Sonja in A Man Called Ove: Ove is the very definition of a curmudgeon, but Sonja loves him anyway. I loved this portrait of love over a lifetime, even and especially through difficult circumstances.

2. Rebecca and Nicholas from The Royal We: This book was a surprise hit for me because the characters were goofy and real. Yes, the idea of an average American girl capturing the heart of  prince seemed far-fetched, but the book was full of adorable and funny moments, and in the end I really loved Nick and Bex.

3. Marko and Alana from the Saga series: This story is kind of Romeo and Juliet set in space. What I love about Marko and Alana is that they flawed characters, but they are feisty and committed and passionate. Also, she has wings and he has horns, so that's pretty cool. :)

4. Leah and Jefferson in The Gold Seer series: This series plays with the old trope of the devoted guy who is in love with his unsuspecting best friend; however, Jefferson is kind and strong, and their romance develops as a quiet love story rather than fireworks and magic. I liked that they really respect and care about each other, both as friends and later as more than friends.

5. Beatrice and Hugh in The Summer Before The War: Maybe I just love period romances, but I enjoyed watching this one develop, especially as it wasn't the whole focus of the book. It was nice watching Hugh's eyes gradually open and the way that World War I showed them what was qualities were truly important in a partner and what wasn't actually such a big deal.

6. Lara Jean and Peter in P.S. I Still Love You: This series is candy to me. I laugh a lot and I get warm fuzzies, and I don't care if high school romances usually don't last. I love these two and I adore Lara Jean's family too.

Now I'll move on to a few couples that I just didn't like:
7. Elena and Nino in the Neapolitan series: Don't get me wrong; I really enjoyed this series and found it captivating, but so many times I just wanted to shake Elena and say, "He's a tool! Walk away from him!! Yes, you had a crush on him as an adolescent, but it's time to move on."

8.  Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV in The White Queen: There was way too much insta-love in this historical novel.

9. Isabelle and Gaetan in The Nightingale: I loved this book, but the romance element annoyed me. I was thankful that it was less prominent than it seemed in the beginning, but the whole, "I've just met you in wartime and now I'm in love" aspect rubbed me the wrong way. Isabelle was a strong character on her own. She didn't need to be following a boy.

10. Pretty much every couple in The Mists of Avalon: I mean, half of them were related to each other, or cheating on each other, and if not, there was probably some kind of witchcraft involved.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books That Have Made Me Think

This week's TTT topic is a freebie, so we can write about whatever we want. I chose to pick 10 books that I've read over the past year that have challenged my thinking or given me more to ponder. It's a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I do try to vary my reading to include books for pleasure and others to help me learn and gain new perspectives, so here are some that stood out. Enjoy!

1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: This book covers several hundred years of a family in Ghana and the United States. It touched upon colonialism, slavery, and oppression. It gave me a lot to ponder and was a compelling read as well.

2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman: This book made me laugh and cry, but it's also the story of an outcast who in some ways has a heart of gold. I don't want to give too much away, but the book made me think about the people around us who are going through great suffering, and how easy it is to dismiss someone as cold or grumpy when there may be more going on.

3. My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege: The author of this book was adopted as a young age, and found out in her 30s that her grandfather was a Nazi war criminal. The book made me think about what family is and how we cope with the burdens of our past, both in our families and the collective past of our culture.

4. All Roads Lead To Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith: Okay, this book wasn't super deep, but I enjoyed the reflection on how people with different nationalities and cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds reacted to the same books.

5. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: I really liked this book about two sisters in Vichy France during World War II. The author made me think about how I would respond under occupation, and what is real heroism? Is it just the person who puts her life on the line who is a heroine? It's not always so easy to judge what is right and wrong.

6. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: A heavy and sobering book about the impact of the war on drugs on the African American community.

7. Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I listened to the audiobook of Coates' letters to his son about what it means to be an African American male, and I plan on reading it again this year. Lots of food for thought.

8. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: I had read this book in high school and picked it up again on a whim. It made me think about the treatment of the mentally ill in society, as well as at the idea of voices. Whose voice do we listen to, and whose do we disregard?

9. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng: As with The Nightingale, this book made me think about the lives of those in extenuating circumstances (in this case, Japanese-occupied Malaya), and the idea of complicity and guilt. Some people had to cooperate with the the occupiers in order to save others. How do we determine whether that is heroism or guilt?

10. Joni: An Unforgettable Story by Joni Eareckson Tada: If you're not familiar with Joni's story, she was a teenager when she had an accident that left her as a quadriplegic, but has ultimately been able to use her story to inspire many. The book talks a lot about suffering and how it has the power to shape us. As someone who has gone through a major loss in the past year (though very different that Tada's), I appreciate her contemplative book about how we hold onto faith in the midst of disappointment, when He does not choose to heal us.

I'd love to hear what books have given you food for thought!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

My Dirty Little Secret

I have a dirty little secret: My house is a mess. Not like "Oh glory me, I haven't dusted the baseboards in days!" kind of mess, but a real mess. I mean, you've probably seen dirtier. It's not like an ecological disaster zone quite yet, but it's pretty darn filthy.

In addition to the dirt, my house is cluttered. Part of this is not my fault; my husband has a bunch of bins of old stuff that he has no time to go through, including reams of paper, and he tends to leave his clothes in a heap but wants to do his own laundry. Part of the clutter is due to the fact that I was in graduate school and working for a while, and the paper just piled up. I can make a bunch of excuses for it, but there is just clutter all over.

Part of the problem is that I kind of, sort of, maybe hate my house. I'm thankful for it, of course. Shelter is good, and we're fortunate to have a house in a crazy market. However, I hate my house because it's a constant reminder of what should have been. It was to be our forever home, with three bedrooms, so we could fill them with kiddos. Instead, I fill those rooms with stuff so that I don't have to think about the what ifs. 

The worst part about my nasty house is that it shames me. Or rather, it adds to the shame that I already feel, and that becomes a cycle. My mind tells me all the time that I'm a failure. I'm a terrible wife and a terrible woman. I can't have a baby and I'm not a great cook, so what kind of wife am I? The logical part of my brain says that it isn't true, that my husband loves me for who I am and doesn't think less of me for my struggles, but it's hard to believe that. That same logical brain tells me to cut myself slack, that I've been dealing with depression and acing school and volunteering as well as working, and it's okay to focus on surviving some days. Then I look at my messy house and the words just ring through my head: "Failure. Failure. Failure." And instead of cleaning and decluttering, my instinct is to hide under the blankets and cry, because I can't face the reality that once I clear it all out, I'll have to come to grips with the emptiness of those empty rooms that will never belong to a child.

On January 1, I woke up as a woman on a mission. I wanted to clean out this house from top to bottom. I wanted to sweep out all the things that had built up and that were overwhelming me, to stop being embarrassed to have someone drop in. Maybe it was getting past the difficult holiday season or hitting roughly six months since our last set of infertility treatments failed, but suddenly I needed change. Since that day, I've been taking it one day at a time. I bought a filing cabinet to attempt to fix the paper problem. I went through boxes of old paper and tossed most of the sheets that I no longer need for school. I scrubbed floors and I dusted. It's a long-term project, and I may never have that pristine house from the magazine, but I'm getting a little bit proud of my progress. Maybe one day I will graduate to being a real adult with a proper home.

Why am I sharing this story? It's embarrassing, right? I don't want people to know how messy I am. I guess I'm sharing it because maybe there are other people who are stuck in shame and loss and grief and need to know that they aren't the only ones who haven't scrubbed the kitchen floor in a long time. I needed you all to know that this grief I'm in is real and painful and nasty and all-encompassing, but I'm ready to be very real about it and not live in shame. I also want to advocate for us hurting people. It's easy to watch an episode of Hoarders and feel sorry for those poor people in their mess. It's not as easy to walk across the street and hug the hurting person who is in front of you. People like me are everywhere. We are in your Bible studies and in your book groups and at your workplace. We are embarrassed and ashamed of the mess inside our homes and inside our minds. I've had people - even my own mother - chastize me for the messy state of my house, and it didn't help. Instead it just told me, "Keep hiding." What I needed was love. I needed to be told that despite the mess, I was worth loving. So readers, if you aren't in the mess right now, keep your eyes open, because it might be your turn to tell someone that they are enough.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: 2016 Releases I Didn't Get Around To Reading in 2016

Hello dear readers! Welcome to 2017! I haven't been posting too much lately. I've been deep in thought and trying to move forward in a variety of areas, so watch this space for some life updates; HOWEVER, it's time for another Top Ten Tuesday, and today we're talking about 2016 release that we didn't manage to read in 2016, so here are some that are still on my list.

1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyosi: I got this in the TBTB Secret Santa exchange from the amazing Katelynn over at Books and Bottles, so I'm stoked to read this very soon!

2. Up To This Pointe by Jennifer Longo: I have a lifelong fascination with ballet, even though I was rubbish as a dancer, so this really appeals to me.

3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: I feel like this book was everywhere in 2016, and yet I still managed not to read it. Soon!

4. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: I still have to read a few of his books, actually, but I'll get around to them at some point.

5. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty: Sounds very intriguing!

6. Victoria by Daisy Goodwin: Historical fiction? Check. British royalty? Check. I'm in!

7. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson: Okay, maybe I'm just obsessed with historical fiction...

8. I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi: I didn't actually hear about this book until last week, so it's hard to say that I "didn't get around to it"; I've been trying to read more about race relations and open my eyes by reading more by people of colour, and this book was recommended. I'm really looking forward to starting it.

9. Swing Time by Zadie Smith: I've read a few of her books and found them interesting, so I'll be excited when my hold for this book comes in within the next few weeks.

10. Avalanche by Julia Leigh: I haven't done IVF, but infertility has been such a central part of my life over the past few years, so I'm looking forward to diving into Leigh's memoir.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

2016: A New Hope or The Darkness Strikes Back?

This year. I can't sum it up in words, more like guttural utterances and tears, with a few profanities strewn in. On top of our personal crises, which included the death of my beloved Sadie and several rounds of failed fertility treatments, we had a number of celebrity deaths, Brexit, the Trump campaign, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, the growing crisis in Syria, and probably a lot more than I'm forgetting. The world feels darker now. My anxiety has been ramped up considerably. My coping has been shaky at best. Despite a couple of high points such as my graduation (which was somewhat marred by my cat's death the day before) his year will go down as a bad one in my life.

On Friday, I went to do something I had really been looking forward to: a friend date to see the film Rogue One. You see, I have been a Star Wars junkie since I was quite small. I grew up enjoying the exploits of Han, Leia, and Luke. Just before meeting my friend, I learned that Carrie Fisher had suffered a heart attack, and on Tuesday her death was announced, followed by her mother's death the following day. I grieve. I was then reminded of this post from one year ago today, when I was feeling low about the year that was, and found a sliver of hope in watching Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope. I wrote these words, which feel ridiculously optimistic after the year that we just experienced: "So maybe it's there, somewhere, that hope. Maybe I can find it and grasp it, if even for a little while."

Looking back on 2016, it feels less like A New Hope than The Empire Strikes Back. It feels like this year was spent fighting the darkness within and without. I did a year-long study of Revelation and then an autumn study on spiritual warfare, yet I feel more helpless than ever against the darkness. I feel like I'm losing and being closed in on all sides. I have prayed and sought and prayed and sought some more, but it's hard to find God in the darkness. As we close off the year, it feels like the Emperor is in charge, Darth Vader has the upper hand, and Han Solo is frozen in carbonite. All I can do is hold on to a tiny hope that this isn't the end and that this darkness will not define the rest of my life.

However, in a dark time such as this one, I am reminded that Carrie Fisher, too, struggled with dark demons, that many people consider her a powerful spokesperson for those dealing with mental illness. So in honour of Carrie, I will raise a glass to toast the end of the year that was, and go forward hoping and praying that this year will be the one when the tide turns, when the darkness ebbs, and when I find hope again. Perhaps 2017 will be the year when I learn how to fight like Princess Leia. May it be so, and may the Force be with you.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read In 2016

2016 is heading toward it's end. I can't say I'll miss this year; I'm consigning it to the dust heap of history for a multitude of reasons, but one of the few bright lights was that I read a lot of great books. Today for Top Ten Tuesday, we're listing our favourite books read in the past year.

1. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: This was hands down my favourite book of the year. 

2. The Diviners by Libba Bray: A paranormal and super creepy story set in 1920s New York. I was gripped from the get-go and I can't wait for the third installment.

3. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson: A beautiful and strange story set in Venice and during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. I liked it so much that I sent it as part of my Secret Santa gift to Melissa over at Writer Grrl Reads. Except that they had changed the cover from what I was used to and the new one has a topless woman on it, so I spent 20 minutes agonizing in the store about whether I'd be creeping out a stranger by sending her a book with nudity on the cover. I sent it anyway, and we both had a laugh over it.

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Gripping and beautifully written novel set in post-War Barcelona. I loved reading it while I was visiting that city.

5. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: I plowed through this in a couple of hours while killing time at the library. So. Many. Emotions.

6. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng: A complex and layered novel set in wartime Penang. 

7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: I put off reading this book for so many years, but I ended up find it to be a real page turner. Sure, there are parts that I skimmed (mostly battle scenes), but I felt really involved with the diverse cast of characters. I'm so glad that I finally read it!

8. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: I don't know what to call this book exactly. It's in some ways a series of stories about the aftermath of an affair that leads to the break-up of a marriage. 

9. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: I just love World War II novels, and this one did not disappoint.

10. Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A series of letters that the author wrote to his son about his life and what it means to be African American. I listened to the audiobook of this book in the car and found it so compelling that I was sorry I didn't have a print copy so I could underline everything.

Honourable mention:
Persuasion by Jane Austen: It was my third time reading this book, so I didn't want to count it amongst the books I'd read for the first time, but I find that I appreciate this book more as I get older. It is probably my favourite Austen, and that's saying something because my love for Pride and Prejudice runs deep.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

On the Term "Childless"

I've been thinking a lot about words lately. As a writer, words are important to me. There is a reason why we choose one synonym and not the other, why we say that something is 'gargantuan' instead of just 'big', for example. I myself have been known to prefer the term 'barren' because the former conveys the bleakness of my lost hopes in a way that the medical 'infertile' does not. Lately, as we ponder the life ahead of us, I'm wondering about 'childless' versus 'childfree'.

This is a polarizing topic. Those who choose not to have children often define themselves boldly as 'childfree', showing that they feel unencumbered by the societal pressure to have a family. It's something I admire, but I do not relate to. I do not feel like I belong among the 'childfree', those who are pleased to choose a life where they can go across the country on a moment's notice, trek the Andes, or just go for drinks after work without ever worrying about who will do the daycare pick-up. Moreover, my inability to conceive feels less like freedom and more like a millstone around my neck, dragging me to the depths, a perpetual burden. I do not think that I will ever view my lack of children as anything other than a lifelong grief.

On the other hand, there is the term 'childless'. Some people, particularly mothers, prefer this term because 'childfree' denotes a sense that to have children is burdensome. I sympathize, because I do experience my situation as marked by loss; however, I do not like those who have children deciding on the term that I - who cannot conceive - should use to define myself. More importantly, I do not wish to constantly define myself as 'less than'.

Those of us who have been in this position, pushing into the 30s with nary a stroller or a bassinet or a baby bump, have perhaps experienced the sense that at some point, their lack of children made them somehow 'less' than others. With phrases exalting a "mother's love" and a "mother's heart", and declaring that "moms are special people", we who are not mothers are defined as less loving, less compassionate. Our time is always less important; it is we the childless who should work late in the office and cover all the holidays. I hear this constantly as my husband consistently works almost every holiday in the year so that the parents in his practice can 'be with their families', as though I am not my husband's family, and as though Gil does not deserve to attend church on Easter like the rest of the doctors can. As though my punishment for being barren is that I should spend the next 20 years of Christmases alone while my husband works at the hospital, so that the deserving fertile people get to be with their families. We are told that our opinions and experiences are less meaningful when people throw around phrases like, "Well, you'll feel different about that when you have children." In churches, we are often an afterthought, the ones asked to teach Sunday school or hand out programs at the multitude of 'family-friendly' events; we are part of the body of Christ, but we're one of those less vital organs, like the appendix or the spleen. The moms - special as they are - get to be the heart and the lungs.

So when I am told that I ought to use the phrase 'childless' to appease some mothers, I wonder why? Why should I walk around defining myself constantly as lacking, as less than, as having a piece missing?  But maybe, in fact, we don't need a term for us as all, because we don't really exist. We are like the wallpaper that you might have noticed at first, but after a while you've forgotten whether it has flowers or polka dots. I don't need a word for my lack of children because my deep grief barely exists, it is invisible to most - even those have been told about it repeatedly - and in a sense, it's as though I don't really exist either.