INTIMATIONS by Zadie Smith

I didn’t check to see what this book of essays was about before starting to read it. Some respected people recommended it, so I opened the front page with no expectations.


I found a collection of essays filled with reflections on the first half of 2020. Unique reflections. Powerful comparisons. But all with room enough for me to think about other perspectives and process my own 2020 experience.

Powerfully beautiful essays, not overindulgent in trite hope nor overwhelmingly oppressive in gloom. I closed the back cover, filled with new insight.

Advertisement

The Best Advice My Mother Gave Me

I always enjoy the week between Christmas and the new year. I love the way it helps us let go slowly and say a proper good-bye.

My mother was a 7th grade English teacher. If you remember 7th grade English, it was saturated with grammatical work. Proper use of commas, dangling participles and conjugating verbs. She was the one we all called when we were stuck with a sentence while writing a college essay. “Mom – tell me again the difference between ‘lay’ and ‘lie’. Was it people lie and objects lay – or the other way around?” She always knew. And if not, she’d go straight to her textbook bibles to double-check. (But she always knew.)

The best advice she gave me, when I struggled through a particular phrase, was to simply change the sentence around.

When you can’t figure out if it’s ‘me and him went to the market’ or ‘he and I went to the market’ – stop trying so hard to figure out the correct grammatical rule and just rearrange the sentence! ‘I went to the market with Scott.’ It’s as simple as that. I’ve used that advice over and over when writing something out and getting stuck mid-way. Take a second. Back up. And rearrange the sentence. There’s always a different way out of the glitch you’ve worked yourself into.

It occured to me this morning that Mom gave me a much deeper piece of advice. The frustration surrounding this unmoored Week-In-Between which is filled with the pressure to make new year’s resolutions, is that too often we can become bogged down in the mire of Making It Important Enough. Looking back over the past year – or in this case, the past decade – we can tend to feel the weight of all the should’ves we shoulda done. This week is not unlike any of the other 51 weeks, but we all fall into the collective trap of Doing Better and Wish I Had… type feelings.

I’m going to take my mother’s advice and try seeing the simple solution: just rearrange the sentence. Can’t figure out how to cultivate a more grateful heart? Stop looking at all the gratitude journals and blessings systems, and simply say to yourself, ‘I am grateful for the sun’s rays this morning.’ Maybe that’s the last moment of recognized gratitude I’ll have all week. I hope not. But I don’t need to be weighed down with all the logistics. I just need to feel and recognize the gratitude and move on. Same with healthy choices and marital relationships and friendships and financial goals. Don’t get pushed under the current of what’s right, what’s acceptable, and what’s expected. Rearrange the sentence…the trajectory…of your life and then you’ll be able to move forward. One sentence after another until the paragraph, the story, the year, the decade begins to take shape.

We all have 24 hours, 52 weeks, and untold years in which to live out our uniquely chosen life. My mind often reels with questions about what is the right way to go about this task? What is the correct thing to do in this situation? Should I have… Could I have… And yet an unfinished sentence is a task not yet completed. An unfinished sentence serves no purpose. No solution.

Sometimes the most grammatically correct thing one can do is the simplest thing.
Simply change the sentence.

 
Here’s to a new year. A new decade! Sure, we have goals in mind and that’s great because that’s what keeps us moving forward and growing stronger. This is just a friendly reminder from a 7th grade English teacher: Don’t drown under the logistics of it all. Go to the gym – even if it’s not the right gym. Have the difficult conversation even though it might entail ugly crying. Reach out, even when you think you’ve done nothing wrong. Save the extra dollar instead of increasing your spending. Don’t get bogged down in the HOW. Live out the WHY.

I’m ready for you 2020. Let’s finish up this sentence so we can go kiss that cute boy waiting for me at my locker (which was always more fun than modifying a clause!) Still is!

My 2020 Unread Book Project

It seems every year I go through the same mental tennis match: ‘Do you REALLY want to set resolutions and goals for January 1? They’re always fraught with so much pressure.’ There is something about a goal set on a random Tuesday that holds more promise of completion for me.

That said, I have decided to participate in a bookstagram challenge for 2020. It’s simply to read more of the books you already have on hand.

While the premise of this challenge originally seemed like a very good idea, I began to see it as something a little more meaningful. As with each new year, I want to make strides in personal growth, namely by reducing the amount of things that activate my tendencies toward addictive behavior. As with many bookish people, it is hard to resist the newest, latest, greatest, trendiest new book on the market. I’m as bad as the next person about falling into that trap, thereby ignoring all of the wonderful books that are sitting right next to my reading chair, waiting to be picked up.

Of course this applies to many areas of my life. I thoroughly enjoy Instagram. The other bookish and plant-loving people I have connected with over there has meant a great deal to me. Some of them becoming authentic online friends. But Facebook? Not so much anymore. I often find myself frustrated and spending an endless amount of time scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through stuff I’m not even really paying attention to. And so for 2020, I am going to attempt to give up Facebook – an unnecessary amount of time that pulls at my addictive behavior.

Lord help me, I am certainly not saying social media is bad. I love it for its many little pleasures and inspiration. But my relationship with Facebook has changed drastically over the years and I think it’s time that we attempt to go our separate ways. The now trendy phrase, Does this bring me joy?, is something I’m asking myself about many of my habits as I head into a new year. A new decade!

This project is being spearheaded by Whitney of The Unread Shelf. She has challenged us to take a good look at our unread books on our own bookshelves and select specific ones that we would like to read in the upcoming year. These won’t necessarily be the only books we read in 2020, but they are books on which we’ve put a higher priority.

I felt a connection with this unread project and asked myself why does this excite me? Why does this make sense to me? I think it’s because using what I already have and what I already own seems to be stepping away from the addiction of needing to have the very latest thing people are talking about. I have a wealth of depth sitting untapped in my very own space. So I think the challenge to read my own unread books will serve a dual purpose. If not more.

What I am not committing to, however, is not buying any books in 2020. (I’m not a masochist. -ha!) But I am going to set some personal goals of reading a certain number of unread books before I can even think about buying a new book (or even reserving books at the library – a.k.a.: new-to-me books.)

In many areas of my life, I am looking forward to discovering what I already have.

I selected each of these books for a particular reason:

Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media by Susan J. Douglas
Truth: (gulp) I was one of those obnoxious people who, while in grad school…back in the room where the textbooks are…picked up this book and added it to my class textbooks even though it wasn’t on the list or even from a class I was taking. (aaaack!) I know, I know. Every professor hates it when students do this. They’ve ordered the correct amount of books needed for their class and suddenly they don’t have enough books to go around. It was me! I’m willing to come out about it now. (But can you blame me?!) Doesn’t the tagline sound fascinating?? How has the trajectory of women’s lives been affected by what we see in movies, tv or (and especially) in commercials? This book has been on my bookshelf for FAR too long.

…And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
Oh my word…I am completely intimidated by this book. I need to overcome my fear of its size.

One of my best and dearest friends, Jenny, threw her very book-loving daughter, Katie, a book party when she turned 16 years old. It was the greatest idea. Each attendee (adults and kids) brought a book that has been significant to them as a gift for Katie. Can you even imagine?! At the end of the party she had a huge pile of books. (Can I get a party like that at my age??)

Anyway, this was one of the books. Here’s a section from the Amazon description of it: about a group of women in the fictional town of Waynesboro, Ohio who begin a woman’s literary club, which evolves through the years into a significant community service organization in the town. The novel, which looks at the club as it changes throughout the years, spans decades in the lives of the women involved in the club, between 1868 and 1932.

I mean. It sounds fantastic, right? I need to conquer it. Maybe I’ll break it up over the course of the year. Hmmm…

Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I very much enjoy early American history. I am a bit jealous of well-known author, Goodwin, for her concentrated expertise on Abraham Lincoln. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be an expert about one particular subject?

One of the monthly challenges that Whitney has laid out for us is to read an unread book we own that was gifted to us by someone. This book fits that bill. My father went to see Goodwin last year and sent me a signed copy of this book. So this year it goes into my must-reads for the year.

Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868 by Cokie Roberts
Again, early American history and also – it’s Cokie Roberts.

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn
This book represents a specific challenge for me. When I was a teenage reader, I loved to read scary books. Amityville Horror and Flowers in the Attic for example. But then adulthood and parenthood TOTALLY changed that and I became a bigtime chicken! -ha. And yet, every time I pick up a ‘scary’ (to me) book like The Girl in the Train – I absolutely love it! I flip the pages faster and faster and love the raised heartbeat of a (somewhat) scary novel. I need to force myself to read them more often. So this Book of the Month novel I’ve had for almost a year needs to be tackled in 2020! You can do scary things, Greta!!

Mariana by Monica Dickens
I have a number of Persephone Classics books on my shelves and yes, mostly, because they have absolutely beautiful covers! Maybe I ought to give them a try as an actual book???

From the Amazon blurb: Monica Dickens, the great granddaughter of Charles Dickens, published Mariana in 1940 when she was only twenty-four years old. A bestseller in its time, Mariana is the often-comical story of a typical English girl growing up in the 1930s.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
Again, this has been on my shelves since grad school (but yes, this was an actual required book for one of my classes.) As with many required reading books, you quickly blow through them, looking for whatever you need to accomplish for the class assignment. I’d like to go back and actually read this classic.

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England by Carol F. Karlsen
It’s a weird subject but one I’ve found interesting in the past. The basis of the book is that the practice of ‘calling out witches’ during the Salem Witch Trials (and so many more!) in many ways defined how it is we see women in society. Subjugated and easily manipulated. How much of a deficit did this cause in the fight for women’s rights?

The last block of books are some of the best books written about Writing and Creativity. I look at them and wonder how much I could learn from these great masters of storytelling and prose:

Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
On Writing by Stephen King

I’m not going to lie, it seems like a daunting task. But it’s daunting because these books are so important to me. I will count this reading year successful if I can incorporate these Unreads into the other books that come my way in 2020. As always, the biggest goal: to read more, expand my mind, increase my vocabulary and always, always have a little more fun in the towns and situations I’ll find myself in through the pages of a well-crafted book.