Best Books of 2018

I'm feeling inspired to share some of my "Best Ofs" for this past year. I'll start with books!

The fiction novel, "Freshwater" by debut author Akwaeke Emezi was such a thrilling story and imaginative concept, delightfully disorienting. What if several gods took up residence in one person - what would that do to their actions? It's about the inner life of a Nigerian woman, Ada. Mysterious and mystical, this book lingers with me still, months later.

I'll read anything by the formidable Jesmyn Ward, but "Sing, Unburied, Sing," gives me chills just remembering the ending. This fictional account of a family in rural Mississippi on a fateful road-trip. As the family drives to retrieve the father from the local prison, the teenage boy encounters a ghost that only he and his gifted baby sister can see. Ward's fascination with the way the living and the dead interact is gripping, and fuel for page-turning.
Elena Ferrante's fictional Neapolitan series, which starts with "My Brilliant Friend," was recommended to me by my friend Niki and is confusingly addicting. We've both discussed how strange they are to read - how intricate and detailed. And how they shouldn't be so interesting, this account of a decades-long friendship between two girls from Naples, but it is. I'm finishing up the fourth novel now, eager to see how it will all wrap up. What I like about the series is how she shows the complexities of life as a woman and her relationships. It's also highly entertaining AND is now an HBO series (though, of course, the books are so much better because of the richness and timber of Ferrante's voice).

Now for the non-fiction/memoir:

Nina Rigg's "The Bright Hour" will leave you utterly undone. She wrote it from the time she was diagnosed with cancer to just weeks before she passed. Riggs is an artist, masterfully crafting some of the most tragic happenings with a killer sense of humor, profound depth of insight and intelligence, and admirable restraint - it would be so easy to rant and rage, with every right to do so, but she doesn't. I wept when I finished, and not just because she died, but because it was such a deeply beautiful book and an example of how impactfull I want my own book to be. A favorite passage of mine:

“I am reminded of an image...that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more."

And another:

“For me, faith involves staring into the abyss, seeing that it is dark and full of the unknown—and being okay with that."

"The Shame of Loosing," by my friend and local author Sarah Cannon just came out and I devoured it! This is the account of Cannon's living through her ex-husband's traumatic brain injury - back when they were in their early 20s and had two small children. What could easily be a rant by a woman put upon by shitty circumstances is in fact a thoughtful and introspective journey that I loved reading.

"California Calling," by my very-dear friend (and mentor, but shh! don't tell her), Natalie Singer, surprised me. I mean, she's my friend (I'm lucky because I'm in a writer's group with both Singer and Cannon), so I am going to like it - but it is a fascinating piece of art that I wasn't expecting to find so thought-provoking. Here's my Goodreads full review:

California Calling: A Self-InterrogationCalifornia Calling: A Self-Interrogation by Natalie Singer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Every time I open my mouth in public to speak, it feels like I am on a witness stand. My chest tightens and my heart crawls up my neck. Even when I'm asked something as simple as my name, it seems like I'm being asked to account for everything that is."

When the narrator was 16, she was asked to testify in family court and she found herself totally mute. This is a pivotal moment in her life, the losing of her voice. The book takes the reader through the beautiful, confusing, complex journey of Singer finding that voice all over again.

I marvel at how Singer was able to see into her memory with almost shamanic magic, reclaiming the soul and spirit of the moments, in addition to the details. She had no fantastical events in her life from which to draw on, but her life, like every human life, is fraught with story and rich in curiosity. Finding the magic when looking back at one's own life is so hard to do - and she inspired me to do the work of forcing a re-frame. How Singer knows what her reader will find interesting is part of her sneaky greatness.

Singer feels almost tangible. She appears before me clearly; sometimes I am her. I'm sweating on that hike in the desert when her boyfriend randomly sits down in an old, used chair and wants to reclaim it; I'm in the car during conversation she had with a California ranger in the moment where she reclaims her voice; I'm a witness on the street when she faces off with the bitch in the car who won't concede. Singer's meditative pace is a joy - in her subtle capturing of the mundane and infusing it with color and movement, not unlike a painter would paint. Not unlike standing in front of a work of art at a museum. There is so much more than we are seeing, and we know it.

The form also excites me; reminiscent, I think, of the artistry and genre-bending form ala Lidia Yuknavich's The Chronology of Water or Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life.

The language is sometimes poetic in lyricism, other times journalistic in concision. And while it feels like a gentle read, Singer's searing intelligence and the things she does not say…they cut deep. A gentle cutting, I suppose - but Singer has enough love for her fellow human to sew them back up again in the end. Instead of bleeding out, we close the book with a gift: an invitation into deeper introspection, nostalgia, and sweet little wisps of our own life's story-ghosts.


What are your best books of 2018? 

p.s. I've linked all the books to Powell's, in the hopes that if you purchase - you'll buy it used, and hopefully from an independent bookstore. I'm trying to wean myself of the convenience and monopoly of - and books are the easiest way to do that. Let's spread the love to the little bookshops.

The lasts

Today is June 8. On this day last year, I sat at this very table in this very coffee shop. I awaited Kelly, who texted me 20 minutes earlier, "Hi you. Any chance you're free right now? I've just finished at the Tummy Temple and have an hour until I see Aylee."

"I'm at Cafe Kopi, come on up," I texted back.

She sauntered in, ordered a green juice, and flipped her hair as she sat down across from me. We'd never met here before, I had only just moved to the neighborhood and was trying out new coffee shops. She was impressed with the juice, and I was happy that my espresso wasn't bitter.

It was that day, that conversation, that cup of coffee...when the news really began to go downhill, gain momentum, fuel the worst anxiety of my life (and also marks the day I stopped drinking caffeine. Anxiety and caffeine hurt each other). Ever since we'd returned from Maui a month ago, she'd been fearing that her lungs were filling with malignant fluid. She was getting winded just trying to walk from one end of the house to the other and it was not improving. She would be going later that day for a scan.

She hugged me and sashayed off to her day.

Bad news came in. Worse news followed it. She died five weeks later.

June 8, 2017                                                                                   June 8, 2018         

I couldn't come back here for months following her death, avoiding the last place we were okay, when everything was fine.

There are so many things the same. It's gloomy today, just as it was one year ago. I am wearing a gray sweater, same as last year. Hair newly bleached, again, the same. I've been here several times since and it hasn't changed at all in a year. The traffic from Lake City Way continues, the bell on the door rings with every entrance and exit, my black decaf (sigh) Americano tastes the same. Motherhood is kicking my ass, just like June 2017.

And just like last year, I feel the need to fight but cannot find anyone's face to punch. There is no enemy here, just as there was no enemy then - not one I could battle, anyway.

Death would have claimed her at some point, just as it will claim all the hearts I love. I am learning how to live with death, but I am still ruined by the how, the when. The difference is that I know her how. I know her when. I would do almost anything to not know those things. To go back to this date one year ago when my worries were about wanting to be a better mom to Bowie, which I journaled about. Every single entry since then has Kelly's name in it.

Everything continued on without her, a feat I swore would be impossible.

But just like with Love, Death performs the impossible.

I feel my physical system going through these adrenaline spikes just like this time last year, when we were ramping up for...we'll, we didn't know what. I am ramping up again, awakening to phantoms, echos of bad news. Reports of this same phenomenon are coming in from the other women, too. The body does indeed keep score.

"The world was ending," texted Jess recently. "Because her world was ending."

Of course we didn't know that then, but we did feel the tidal wave of something approaching. And as the five-week countdown to the one year anniversary of her death begins, that inkling builds again.

Perhaps this is what to expect every year: a reliving, a reprocessing, a re-experiencing that my body must go through. Grief people say so.

The last few weeks, I've been happy. Curious, even...about these weeks approaching. What will they feel like? Making plans to commemorate so many lasts...the last coffee date, the last day she hugged Joel in the entry way, the last time she ate at my dinner table, the last text, the last voicemail, last communal meal at Niki's, the last time she and I spoke alone.

I miss her, so I wanted to relive it. I invited myself back into hell. And so here I sit, brick after brick of lasts piling on top of me.

Elizabeth Gilbert recently posted about loosing her wife to cancer earlier this year and it's haunted me ever since:

"Here is what I have learned about Grief, though.

I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.

The only way that I can “handle” Grief, then, is the same way that I “handle” Love — by not “handling” it. By bowing down before its power, in complete humility.

When Grief comes to visit me, it’s like being visited by a tsunami. I am given just enough warning to say, “Oh my god, this is happening RIGHT NOW,” and then I drop to the floor on my knees and let it rock me. How do you survive the tsunami of Grief? By being willing to experience it, without resistance.

The conversation of Grief, then, is one of prayer-and-response.

Grief says to me: “You will never love anyone the way you loved Rayya.” And I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “She’s gone, and she’s never coming back.” I reply: “I am willing for that to be true.” Grief says: “You will never hear that laugh again.” I say: “I am willing.” Grief says, “You will never smell her skin again.” I get down on the floor on my fucking knees, and — and through my sheets of tears — I say, “I AM WILLING.” This is the job of the living — to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you.

I don’t know where Rayya is now. It’s not mine to know. I only know that I will love her forever. And that I am willing."

Meet me for coffee, Dove?


Happy Birthday, Kelly

Dear Kelly,
Happy Birthday, Dove! You were always the best at celebrating birthdays, yours and others.

Today, as I was enjoying some quiet morning yoga and meditation in an empty house, the sun peaked out and shined right on my face. Like right on it! It felt like a massive gift and got me thinking about you and the birthdays and get-a-ways and celebrations we've shared the last 10 years.

Remember this platter you made for Jess, Niki, and I two years ago at the Octopus Hole house?

I could stare at that perfectly sliced fruit for hours, conjuring up images of your hands holding a knife, cutting for days. This was your quintessential meal in summer or spring. In winter or fall, always a hot bowl of nourishing soup or stew with your homemade sourdough bread.

You fed us so well.

I feel quiet today. My thoughts wander to your this day 38 years ago, she pushed you into this world. What did baby Kelly's cry sound like? Were you scrawny or chubby? Did you eat right away or take your time learning to suckle? (I see you smirking. I know, I hate that word too...suckle. Which reminds me of a recipe of yours I read recently where you said "frothy" and then "god, I hate that word." You always left little notes like that. I'd ask for a recipe and it would be laced with goofy comments throughout...thank you for leaving breadcrumbs of yourself all over my life.)

We went out this weekend for your was strange. You were so present it was distracting.  We ordered all the things and tried each other's food like always. When we let Brad choose the bottle of wine (because as you know, Joel choosing bottles of wine could put us all in debt, so we let Brad choose since it was your bday and you'd be the one choosing), the server brought three glasses. After the first pour, Brad asked her to bring one more glass. He poured out a taste for you, and just like that, all eyes were red and wet. "Here's to you, babe," he said.

The first time we went out for your birthday was to Salty's. Brad had won a gift card for the crab brunch and so we went there on a Saturday, you in your flower DVF maxi, and ate a shit-ton of seafood. That's what you always want for your bday, some seafood meal with oysters, please. The last time we went out for your birthday meal, we were at Copine - ogling each other's plates, ordering too much, chatting about home-ownership.

On your actual birthday, you would have gotten out of bed at some ungodly hour to see the sunrise, over a mountain or at the beach. I just spent time lingering over this post you wrote on your 34th birthday. You would have made a day of it, and I feel sad that I can't do that today, that I didn't plan for it.

But then I ask myself, what would you have done? And I answer that I could have gotten up at sunrise, taken myself out to breakfast, taken the day off work to meditate and embrace grief, flew to Costa Rica like we always said we would, write this damn book, establish a foundation in your know, all in a day's work. I jest, but that's the truth. All of the rituals and trips and doings in the world will not be enough to express what you meant to me, never enough to feel like yes! I've finally honored Kelly.

Even today, I want to write something epic, something profound. A wisdom bomb, you would say. But I don't have anything. I am surviving off of breadcrumbs and it's taking all my willpower to not post every single bday picture and tell every single bday memory right now...but something hungry inside of me halts. I will need that nourishment. There's a lot more birthdays without you we'll need to get through.

So I will honor you in the small ways. A hot cup of chamomile from a mug I bought thinking of you. Hugging my legs to my chest in the galaxy leggings you wore. Maybe meticulously cut up some fruit and veg for lunch. Meandering through your blog and Instagram posts.

And write you a letter.

Always your friend and partner in birthday bashes,

Found: a Spring letter

We just passed the 14th of the month and for the first time, I don't immediately know how many months ago Kelly died, not without counting. Curious.

Did I tell you? I am writing a book. A book about Kelly and our friendship and grief and her death and my unsatisfactory life without her. A life of bitter pain but little suffering. Part of that book will contain her hand-written letters to me (and hopefully mine to hers if I can get into her archives soon).

As I transcribe these letters, I found one that feels especially timely since it's nearly the same time of year that she wrote it, only 8 years ago. Every drop of ink is just so Kelly. Her letters were exactly like sitting down to a cup of coffee with her: she'd tell me about her purchases, how people in the country always gawked oddly at her, and we'd discuss our latest developments and research in gardening. Then we'd spend hours shopping for plants. Then she'd come over and help me plant them all.

Kelly was such a massive help to me. Without her, I feel like I am trying to lift 300 lbs of life. Maybe that's why I am always so tired. I've lost one of my main sources of energy and motivation.

I am a very amateur gardener, pots only so far. But my body is naturally awakening to this desire to plant again. Last year, it took all I had to plant a few herbs, strawberries, several tomato plants, and a shit ton of lavender when she got sick - simply because it made me feel close to her. Knowing that she'd be doing the same, working in the wild, if she could, motivated me. It was my medicine to her - to do what she couldn't.

We purchased several of those plants together at our annual day together in May, an edible plant sale. We've gone every year since 2012, and every year, Kelly's crate of purchased plants got bigger and bigger. We would walk back to my house and have brunch and a lazy day of laying in the sun, grab a hot dog for mid-day dinner, and do some sort of communal dinner that evening.

As I read this letter, smiling for the indelible Kelly Clarkness of it all, I thought you might like a smile too - even if it breaks your heart.

I am missing

There once was a me
I knew

But you died and took me
with you.

In place of me, a new
confused thing will do

Strange things like
hoard your every shoe.

The earth you walked,
the dirt you knew

Stained on the bottom
of a boot no one else can have
but you.

But you, not here, left me to hide
those shoes.

Your quirky socks I wear,
Will they walk my feet to you?

The wise old owl of me used to have
the redwood tree of you

A tall and lanky perch
from which to view

The shirking prey, the darkest night, the darting truth.
Tell me, my guru,

What now? What can I do
without the branches of you?

"Stop," you say,
to choose

For I left, but I am not gone," you say.
"And I have news for you.

I am more than tree.
I am all colors, spirit-hewed.

Stop denying that same is true for you.

I promise, my owl
Everything you need, you already have
deep, deep, deep inside of you.

Go plant a new tree,
the tree of you.

Please believe me, you would
If you could see you as I do.

Strong as stalwart, as in your youth
Firmly-planted, leaves true blue.

There is no way out of this
You must go through."

But I am blind, wing-bound.
My vision slight, talons eschew.
I cannot be as I was once used to.

I am missing,
I am missing,
I am misssing

I am missing,
I am missing,
I am missing
me, too.