Reading to Remember

Reading to Remember

Last May, I moved for the second time in a year. Anyone who has moved knows that it’s a special type of hell. My belongings seemingly doubled before my eyes as I attempted to jam everything into so many cardboard boxes and trudge them a whopping 3 blocks south. Such is the life of a city dweller; most Chicagoans have moved once a year for as long as they can remember, and I’m no exception.

At that time, I’d just begun reading Marie Kondo’s now infamous book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although I still think she could benefit from a deep breath and a bit of therapy, following her parameters for successful decluttering  brought me to a big realization: I desperately needed to pare down my book collection.

Yes, you read that right. Allow me to explain.

I’m a person who loves books more than all other possessions. Since college, I’ve dreamed of having a large and extensive book collection that would transform any apartment into the most magical and cozy of places. For a long time, my primary strategy for achieving that goal was to keep every book I’d ever owned, including textbooks, compilations of works by authors that I detested but had been required reading for some class or another, childhood books that I’d long outgrown, books that I may have liked at one time but whose plot I could no longer recall, books that made no impression on me at all, and so on.

As I stared at my collection, no doubt trying to figure out how to fit it into as few boxes as possible, I realized that at least half of my books fell into those  aforementioned categories—books I had no emotional attachment to, couldn’t really remember, or flat out didn’t like. The most basic of all of Marie Kondo’s decluttering principles is to keep only that which inspires joy. I imagined a library full of only books that I enjoyed, books that inspired and moved me, or taught me something deep and true. I felt my heart flutter.

It took me two full days, but eventually I sorted out the books that didn’t bring me joy, and I donated them. My collection was whittled down to half of what it was. I felt relieved, lighter, truer to who I was as a reader and a writer.

However, throughout this process, I realized that I had also become a very lazy reader. Although it was liberating to clear out my bookshelf, wasn’t it also sad that so much of my reading time had been lost in the ether? Why were there so many books that I simply could not remember?

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests not only reading books in your genre, but studying them.

Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions. You can’t just say “Neruda is a surrealist”; you have to quote him watching laundry “from which slow dirty tears are falling.” And you have to look up something about surrealism to define it.

Not only does this make you a crisper thinker, according to Karr, but it grounds you in your craft. Plus, I think we’ve all been in a situation where we struggle to relocate an impactful quote from a book we once read. (It took me 15 minutes to track down the quote I cited above, for example. But I’m working on it!)

As part of my year of reading, I resolved not only to read a book a week this year, but to take copious notes. I began in earnest by creating a Reading Bullet Journal.  If you’re at all connected to a planner community, you’ve probably already heard of the Bullet Journal. It’s taken the UK and the US by storm, and I am fully ensconced in it myself. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to keep track of every facet of my life—daily appointments, my endless to-do lists, books I’ve read this year, notes about my day, shopping lists, and so on. The best part of bullet journaling is that it’s completely flexible, meaning that its principles can easily be applied to a reading journal. So I started one!

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I kept it simple, writing the title of the book, striking quotes, and a summary after I finished reading. However, as I ramped up to reading a book a week this year, I realized I couldn’t keep up with this handwritten system. For one, I do most of my reading while on public transit. When you have a book in one hand and the other is holding on to a stability pole, there’s not much opportunity for underlining your favorite quotes or jotting down thoughts. Instead, I found myself taking pictures of the pages so I could easily relocate the  quotes I wanted to remember later. In short time, my reading journal became another unopened notebook collecting dust on my shelf, and I was back to square one.

Until I stumbled upon James Clear’s blog post on strategies for retaining more of what you read. I love using an analog method to record my daily world, but I realized the ingenuity of Clear’s suggestions as soon as I finished reading his post. Clear suggests using Evernote—a platform that allows you to keep searchable notes in multiple notebooks across various devices—, or another digital note keeping system to do two things: make notes as you read and summarize the book. Using a digital system makes your notes searchable, and summarizing the book and how it intersects with other books you’ve been reading or subjects you’ve been learning about ensures that you will retain more of what you just read. I started using this system a few weeks ago. When I finish a book, I quickly write a summary, attach my quote pictures, and move on to my next book. This has been so revolutionary for me that it’s as if I finally realized why Evernote exists.

When you’re reading a book a week, your mind quickly makes connections between subjects that are seemingly disparate. It’s the most lovely part of reading so frequently and the part that I can never seem to capture. I’m excited to finally start making these connections in a way that I can easily reference later (or so I hope). To me, the intersection point between disparate ideas is where truly good writing comes from. With this new strategy at hand, I’m hoping to find more of those intersection points and jump into a truly great year of reading and writing.

 

Finding the Novel Cure

A few months back, as my bus trundled along Lake Shore Drive, carrying me to another hectic work day, I opened an article—entitled Can Reading Make You Happier?— that one of my most wonderful English professors had posted to Facebook. I already knew my personal answer to the question, but I love reading articles that confirm my anecdotal evidence, so I opened it on my cell phone and dove right in. (If you haven’t read it, stop right here and click that link immediately. Seriously, hop to it!)

To my surprise, the article that I thought would be full of statistics and scientific evidence on the mood-lifting effects of reading was actually an article on bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Despite having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English, I had never heard of bibliotherapy. The idea was immediately enticing. Using books to cure one’s ailments? What could be more magical and lovely?

Like most avid readers, I’ve been experiencing the power of the written word since I was young. Despite my interest in books from a young age, the first time I can remember the saving grace of words was as a junior in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador for a summer, and as I boarded the plane to go to a developing country alone, the words of Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh series kept echoing in my head: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Those words became my mantra that summer, lending me courage as I teetered above the Andes mountains in a small propeller plane flying from Quito to Cuenca, mimed my needs to my host family while trying to speak a foreign language that felt like speaking with a cork in my mouth, and navigated foreign streets in a city 15 times bigger than any city I’d ever lived in. They say that you are the stories you tell yourself, and Christopher Robin assured me that, despite my doubts and fears, I could do this on my own.

Since then, there have been plenty of times when the words of literature have surfaced from the dark of my mind, right when I’m experiencing something difficult, like a whispered thought from God. When I’m taking on a new project or I feel nervous about putting myself out there creatively or professionally, I remember “I had to do it for myself” (Everything is Illuminated). While mourning the death of my grandmother and watching the terror of the January 2015 Paris attacks, I thought of one of my most beloved protagonists, Oskar, and his “heavy boots” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). When I’m struggling with anxiety, I think of Sylvia Plath’s “I am, I am, I am” (The Bell Jar). When I feel jealous of others’ success or find myself sizing up my accomplishments with those of my coworkers or friends, I remember Amy Poehler’s “Good for her, not for me” (Yes, Please). When I’m trying to find the motivation to write or exercise or simply follow through, I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory that “any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion,” and I push myself to simply keep moving (Big Magic). Needless to say, after many books and many experiences, I’m inclined to believe that books can help with anything.

For weeks after reading that article, I’d found myself idly thinking about The Novel Cure, a sort of medical dictionary put together by two bibliotherapists, and wondering what sorts of great book recommendations lay within. So, for Christmas this year, I bought myself a copy! There’s never a time that I couldn’t use a good book recommendation to cure what’s ailing me.

The day the book arrived, I sat on my couch, leisurely paging through the list of ailments and their novel remedies. There were many that I felt applied to my life; some were concrete and diagnosable medical ailments—anxiety, having; panic attacks; flying, fear of; claustrophobia. Others were more general, abstract, and even funny ailments—Monday morning feeling; brainy, being exceptionally (an ailment that I totally understand); writer’s block; tired and emotional, being.

I continued to peruse the pages, searching for the perfect diagnosis to start with, confident that I would know it when I saw it. Then it jumped out at me. My soul gave a little gasp of immediate understanding before I even read the description for this ailment, and I knew this was where I needed to start.

City fatigue.

It is exactly what it sounds like. In my case, it’s not being able to truly nap in over two years. It’s wanting to ride the bus without having to listen to the prattling, inane conversations of 20 strangers yapping on their cell phones. It’s every time the bus doesn’t show up and it’s -25 degrees outside. It’s the drug-addled person shouting on the train while you’re locked in a tiny car in a tunnel beneath the earth. Or listening to your downstairs neighbor relentlessly blast his bass for literally 10 hours without reprieve on the day after the Paris attacks when you are hungover, weary, and sure that all of humanity is spiraling into a pit of absolute madness. It’s that unending craving for space, quiet, and delicious solitude. Yes, city fatigue and I are well acquainted, but it’s time to finally distance myself with this constant companion. So I’m starting with The City and The City by China Miéville, the recommended cure for city fatigue and a murder mystery that focuses on the tiring matter of “unseeing” those around us. With any luck, maybe I’ll learn a few coping mechanisms.

This year, I’ve resolved to read at least 27 books, or one book every other week; it’ll be challenging given that I’m planning 2 weddings and trying to establish a daily writing practice on top of regular adult duties. Moreso, the goal is to remind me of the importance of reading during every available opportunity. With The Novel Cure in my library, I know I’ll have plenty of great recommendations at my fingertips. For those of you who aren’t so interested in the physical index, you can also find plenty of good advice, book recommendations, and inspiration on The Novel Cure website. Incidentally, they also do “surgery,” or provide customized diagnoses for readers who write in with their ailments.

As for me, by the time of my next post, I’ll hopefully be ready to face the city with abandon once again. If not, there’s also a novel cure for misanthropy, so that may be the one to check out next.

Reading Drought

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It happened. Just now. I finished a book! And a great one at that!

For months now, I’ve been suffering through a long, listless reading drought.  I’ve been attempting to read books that seem intellectually interesting, but ultimately don’t captivate my imagination. I’ll sit down, intent on making some serious progress, and find my mind wandering or my eyelids drooping instead. Would I like to be interested in these topics? Yes. But am I? $4.50 of library fees say that I’m not. (When library fees come a quarter at a time, that’s a lot of disinterest and misplaced motivation!)

So, I finally faced the facts, returned my not-so-interesting library books, and splurged on the new releases I’ve been drooling over for a while now. After all, one of my goals for 30 is to read 30 inspiring and interesting books this year. I certainly can’t do that if I can’t get past the first 20 pages of my book.

Now, you can tell the state of my life by the books I’m reading.

My dear loyal readers, get ready for some book reviews, because I’m diving head first into my good reads!

Five Minute Book Blurb: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

When I embarked on my reading challenge last year, a lot of my friends asked me, “How do you decide which books to read?” or “Could you recommend a good book related to ________ theme?”

If you’re like me, you rarely have the time or the will power to read more than a couple of paragraphs into a book review. With so much reading and writing to do, who has time to read someone else’s opinion of a book? Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I like a sharp, smart review of an interesting book, but more than anything, I want a brief overview of the book’s overarching themes so I can quickly decide if it’s interesting enough to mark as “To-Read” on my Goodreads list. Let’s be real. There are so many books in the world and only so little time. I don’t have even a moment to spare on an uninteresting read.

Thus, I introduce the five minute book blurb, where I’ll be giving you just that: the essentials. Enjoy, and check back for more updates in the future.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

publicly shamedAlthough many of us remember a time before the Internet (myself included), it’s an invention that has become as commonplace and mundane as white bread. In fact, it’s something that we in the first world often take for granted. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed shatters that notion, reminding us that the Internet is a powerful, creepy, and dangerous world.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson (known for The Psycopath Test and Men Who Stare at Goats) seeks to take on the world of Internet shaming and social media justice. Think of Cecil the Lion, and you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about. The stories of both the shamed and the shamers are eerie and surreal, and this book struck a discordant fear in me that is normally reserved for Stephen King novels and scary movies.

Throughout the book, Ronson examines the effects of shame on those who fall victim to the angry “pitchfork mobs” of Twitter goers, whether or not the shaming is truly just, who gets shamed and who manages to escape, and the haunting online reputations that make recovery from that shame nearly impossible. By the end, I was reconsidering posting to this blog or Facebook or Instagram or the Internet at large ever again. And I’m still contemplating why strangers can take and post pictures of others online without their consent (even if it means it may ruin their lives) while broadcasting your face on live television still requires a signed waiver.

While interesting and definitely worth reading, the book fell flat for me overall. Ronson assumes that, like him, you are entrenched in the weird world of incessant tweets and widely-broadcast Youtube confrontations. Likewise, he approaches interesting conclusions about who suffers most from these online shamings (spoiler alert: it’s women) and the deeply damaging effects of shame, but then shies away from the topic as if he has no opinion or the greater consequence of the shamings is less important than the creepy circumstances. In all, Ronson gets too caught up in the lure of the bizarre to truly make any worthwhile statements about what our tendency to mob-shame others via the Internet really means about us.

This is a great book to read if… you wonder who those Internet trolls really are and you’re in for a semi-dystopian time.

dare greatlyIf you’re interested in themes like shame and vulnerability, I’d highly recommend… Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown. This book does the heavy lifting that Ronson’s book does not, and, without exaggeration, changed the way that I think about the big projects, moves, and relationships in life.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review… I’d recommend this one by Choire Sicha, who very smartly points out where and why Ronson’s book on the unruly mob of Tweeters goes wrong: “The actual problem is that none of the men running those bazillion-dollar Internet companies can think of one single thing to do about all the men who send women death threats.”

And with that, I’m on to the next book!

What I Learned from a Year of Reading

It’s been a year of transition and learning for this reader/writer/wanderer. Numbed by the most bitterly cold winter of my life and the culture shock that comes from moving between lives and worlds, I embarked on a mission to read a book a week for the entire year. After returning from Ecuador, I’d felt like a stranger blindly wandering through a life that wasn’t entirely mine; reading, I hoped, would help me learn something about why I couldn’t get back to myself, or rather, about the person I had become between leaving for Ecuador and returning to the States.

For a year, I read on the train and in the bus, in doctor’s offices and coffee shops and by the lake, while making dinner and waiting for friends, as I brushed my teeth before bed and during my limited lunch breaks at work. At the beginning, there were many successes; when it’s literally 50 degrees below zero, there’s not much to do other than read. Then summer finally, unbelievably arrived, bringing adventures with friends and family, months of 12-hour work days, entire weeks of binge watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and a fantastic new relationship that’s kept me wonderfully distracted. Now, as the temperature wanders back into the negatives, I’m finishing out the year with a total of 37 books, averaging a little more than a book every week and a half of 2014. I didn’t completely achieve my goal, but I did learn a lot along the way. Below are the biggest lessons I learned during my year of reading:

1. My threshold for finishing a book in a week is approximately 250 pages; on average, fear of flying begins at age 27; and the more you replay a memory in your mind, the more cemented it is in your brain.

You learn a wealth of interesting facts when throwing back a book a week. For instance, I learned how the use of memory palaces—or placing visual cues in a mental recreation of a familiar place—facilitates your brain’s ability to recall information. I learned what parts of the brain trigger and manage anxiety and a multitude of strategies for clearing such stimuli from an overtaxed brain. I learned how chickens are sexed. I learned about the history of machismo in Latin America and the altered mental state caused by mourning. I learned what vulnerability looks like in work, study, and relationships and why it’s important in all facets of life. I also learned exactly where in my commute I can balance on my tip toes just long enough to wrestle my book out of or into my bag, an important lesson when packed into a shifting, tilting, herky-jerky train.

As I paged through book upon book, I also began to see themes from previous books reappear time and time again, which brings me to my next lesson….

2. Everything is interconnected, or reading makes you a good conversationalist.

After a mere two months of my reading challenge, I quickly realized that the more I read, the more I had to say to those around me. I discussed the mechanics of memory with my coworkers and the science behind flying with my father who is an active sports pilot. With friends, I marveled over the dark, yet hopeful themes in Saunders’ short stories, themes that moved me to tears even while sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers on the L. As it turns out, my reading challenge was also great material for first-date conversation and an easy way to tell if I should pursue a second date.

Fun fact: I knew I’d snagged a keeper when my boyfriend confessed that the first book he checked out with his brand new library card was Pride and Prejudice. *Swoon*

3. No TV required.

Before I began my journey in reading, I spent a lot of time watching TV, particularly the low-budget reality trash that fills the MTV and TLC lineups. It’s a terrible habit that I’ve had since college. “No! You’re too smart to watch this trash,” my friends would moan as I turned on the latest episode of Teen Mom or Intervention. At the time, I told myself that I was simply giving my mind a break from studying and the literal hours of news I watched and/or read every day. (Little did I know that TV news media is just a separate but equally terrible and unconscionable form of reality TV.) When I returned to the United States, I also returned to my old reality TV habits. After my forced, long-term separation from reality TV while living in Ecuador, however, I couldn’t mindlessly consume the drivel without noticing how numb and stupid I felt afterwards or the way that society seemed to be lowering itself to meet the bad behavior I’d witnessed on my TV screen. I knew that to feel better in my own skin, I needed to rescue my brain first.

So I turned off the TV and picked up the books, and hot damn did it feel good! I could almost feel my brain cells regenerating with every new page. Of course, I always knew that I didn’t need TV, but the wonderful lesson was that I didn’t even miss it.*  I went months without even touching my remote and this year I plan to cancel my cable completely. Good riddance!

*I’m counting House of Cards and Orange is the New Black as a different kind of TV here, since I feel these series hinge on the same elements you would find in a well-crafted story.

4. Some books shouldn’t be read in a week.

When I picked up Geek Love by Katherine Dunne, I didn’t realize that the book was nearly 400 pages long. I loved the riveting strangeness of the plot, the bizarre, yet relate-able characters, and the richness of the story…until I realized that it was nearly the end of the week and I still had 200 pages to finish. I dutifully forged through the rest of the novel, feeling exhausted and annoyed by the time I finished.

Towards the end of the year, when finishing 52 books was clearly unattainable, I began The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. With no deadline looming over me, I luxuriated in the detail, taking the time to truly contemplate the characters and let the themes percolate in my mind. It was absolutely liberating. This coming year, I’m excited to tackle the fat books that have been gathering dust on my bookshelf since my challenge started, because books are richer when you have the time to get completely lost in the story.

5. Reading begets more reading.

Before this past year, I hadn’t done much reading. Thanks to post-graduate school burnout and the pervasive idleness of Ecuadorian life, I’d forgotten what it truly meant to read for pleasure.

As Malcolm X said, “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”

After my year of reading, I am more curious, more hungry for knowledge, more passionate about the world around me, and more connected to myself than I have been in a long time. Thanks to a regular regimen of reading, my mind has been fully reawakened, and I have never loved reading as much as I do today.

My increased book consumption naturally led to more online reading as well. I began with lists on good books for 20 somethings, then gradually transitioned to articles about gender, studies on language and memory, and interesting pieces on the mythical concept of work-life balance. As I went through the highs and lows of life, I looked to the written word for guidance. Disappointed and disheartened by the Hobby Lobby ruling, I reflected on Rebecca Traister’s I Don’t Care If You Like It, an article that I still think about with an ache of identification and a surge of determination. After discussing the sometimes dismissive attitudes of male colleagues, a friend recommended an excellent story from NPR, Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?, which empowered me and impacted the way I interact with my coworkers. Exhausted and overworked, I sought solace in I Came Undone and Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed. Anytime I needed a good read in addition to my designated book for the week, I also perused the always excellent Longreads blog.

As I mulled over these concepts, I also realized…

6. We are what we put into our brains.

I am convinced now more than ever that what we put into our brains dictates who we are and what we will become.

This sounds fairly obvious, but it’s easily forgotten when we just need an hour of mind-numbing TV or Facebooking to take off the edge at the end of the day. (See point #3.) As it turns out, Buzzfeed lists, crying reality TV stars, and Candy Crush Saga are easy to consume, but don’t offer the rejuvenation that we truly crave.

Within the first months of my reading challenge, I felt more creative and motivated to write than I had in years. Instead of plopping myself on the couch with leftovers and the TV remote/cell phone, I soothed my tired soul with words. The more I read, the more I wrote and desired to write. My brain was always tired, but, to my surprise, I always felt regenerated by the end of the night.

6. Minor failures do not constitute a total failure.

I may have failed at reading 52 books in a year, but I succeeded at feeling good in my skin again. Books offered me a form of escapism that didn’t numb me; instead it allowed me to examine myself indirectly through the struggles, joys, and life experiences of others, fictional or not. Through books, I found a way to work through the hard parts of my Peace Corps service and the new, sometimes unrecognizable, person I was upon returning. Of course, reading wasn’t the sole factor for my successful reintegration into U.S. culture. Reading grounded me; counseling and the unconditional support of family and friends helped me work through reverse culture shock and rebuild my life in the States. As such, I am eternally grateful for those who dedicate their lives to guiding others through their struggles, for the people in my life who love me through all the ups and downs, and for the writers who take on the risk and hard work of writing about the oddities, struggles, tragedies, mysteries, and complexities of life.

So what’s in store for this blog now that my year of reading is over? As I mentioned in a previous post, 2015 is the year of focus—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. This blog, fortunately, is one of the projects that I’ll be dedicating myself to this year. Thanks to a 1.5 hour round trip commute, I’ll have plenty of reading material to reflect on, and given that one of my many New Years resolutions is to finally write a collection of essays, I’ll have plenty of writing insights to share as well. To those who have been reading and commenting, thanks for taking this journey with me; I hope you’ll check back often.

Here’s to a productive and prolific 2015!

A One-Sentence Review of My Favorite Reads of 2014

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer—A quirky and insightful read about the mechanics of memory, the mysterious nature of the brain, carefully crafting our own perception of our lives, and the often-overlooked importance of forgetting.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion—Using straightforward and simple language, Didion portrays what it truly means to grieve and pay tribute to those we love in images that struck hard and stuck with me long after closing the book.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—A magnificently crafted book about the eternal love between family and the horrors of life, portrayed in detail so real and vivid that I dreamt of losing my own sister for nights on end. (Note: That was the worst part of reading the book. This novel is truly excellent.)

Tenth of December by George Saunders—As usual, with great talent and mastery, Saunders shows us the best and worst of humanity, blurring the lines between bad and good and striking both hope and despair in the hearts of his readers.

1984 by George Orwell—Disturbing and impactful, this book made me realize that in a society devoid of freedom of speech and human rights, not even your personal thoughts and memories are safe.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—A tear-jerker that felt more substantive than many other YA novels I’ve read and truly made me consider the differences between empathy, sympathy, and love, especially in the face of terminal illness.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg–An encouraging, affirming, and comforting guide on why writing is important, how it spiritually nourishes us, and how to create a life that centers around a daily writing practice.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Changes the Way  We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown—An insightful look into why vulnerability leads to greater self-fulfillment, better parenting, work successes, and more meaningful relationships and a practical guide on how to bring vulnerability into our everyday lives.

A One-Sentence Review of My Least Favorite Reads of 2014

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney—Another forgettable book about a self-pitying 20-something wallowing in drugs, alcohol, and despair.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro-Yawn fest.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg—Although this book contained some nuggets of wisdom, I couldn’t get past Sandberg’s focus on working within the confines of the patriarchy to rise to the top or the in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time luck that contributed to much of her success and therefore greatly separates her from the majority of the working women that she aims to address and motivate.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Marukami—In spite of a very catchy name, Marukami’s book offers mostly train-of-thought observations and lacks the originality and insight that I expected and craved.

To Be A Creator

“Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.

Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.

It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something….

Whatever you try to build or create–be it a poem, a new skill, or a new relationship–you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who will trash it…. Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing.”

6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person; I can’t say I agree with everything in this article, but it made me reflect on the risks and rewards of creativity and why it’s important to silence the critic and press on.

For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life had vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.

—Jhumpa Lahiria, The Namesake

I don’t know anything about being pregnant, but I’ve never read anything that more accurately describes what it’s like to live in a culture that’s not your own.

I am no longer at the Council on Foreign Relations at Sixty-eighth and Park but sitting across from John at breakfast in the dining room of the Bristol in Paris in November 2003. We are each reading the International Herald Tribune, hotel copies, with little stapled cards showing the weather for the day. The cards for each of those November mornings in Paris showed an umbrella icon. We walked in the rain at the Jardin du Luxembourg. We escaped from the rain into St. Sulpice. There was a mass in progress. John took communion. We caught cold in the rain at the Jardin de Ranelagh. On the flight back to New York John’s muffler and my jersey smelled of wet wool. On takeoff he held my hand until the plane began leveling.

He always did.

Where did that go?

–Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking; I had to take a breather after reading that one, and I’ve thought of that passage every single time I’ve traveled by plane since then.

Our heartache poured into one another like water from cup to cup. Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day that I knew I wanted to tell my story to my family. Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained.

-Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

Born to Run? Maybe. Love to Run? Yes.

It occurred to me a month ago, while on a short practice run before the 5.3k I planned to run a few days later, that I’ve been running for over a year now. If you had asked me just two years ago if I’d ever envisioned myself as a runner, you’d first get a loud and incredulous laugh and then an emphatic no. For as long as I can remember (before this past year), I’ve hated running. As a child, I stuck to sports that involved little to no running, like softball and volleyball. I absolutely loathed the “fun runs” that our high school P.E. teacher required us to suffer through—for a grade no less!—and no matter how many people talked about that “epic runner’s high” that comes after  pounding the pavement, I could never fathom why anybody would want to put themselves through such misery.

I still deeply hated running when I first heard Christopher McDougall talking on the radio during the long drive between Kansas and my parents’ house in 2009. Deep in the middle of Bible thumping territory, where your selection of radio stations narrows to painfully hopeful Christian music, angry preachers delivering hell fire and damnation, and twangy country ballads, I stumbled upon McDougall talking about his now famous book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. I was quickly enveloped in the interview as McDougall described the never-ending list of running injuries that had permanently placed him on the DL list and his amazing journey to discover both the secret of running and the most legendary runners in the world: the Tarahumara Indians. I looked out over the miles of road slipping below my tires, but what I saw before me were the bare feet of the Tarahumara shuffling over the jagged trails of the Copper Canyons, McDougall and his motley crew of superathletes jouncing over dirt roads in a beat up Mexican bus, and the shoe-clad feet of the superathletes lined toe-to-bare toe with the Tarahumara before the epic 50-mile race that serves as the book’s climax.

When I finally sat down this spring to read McDougall’s full account of the ultramarathon that took place between the Tarahumara and his team of world-renowned super runners, the experience was much different than I anticipated. Now a runner myself, I expected to love every page, to be fully convinced and riveted by every magical word. Instead, I found myself alternately enthralled and turned off by McDougall’s story, my reactions as severe and extreme as the Copper Canyons where most of the book is set. In a sentence, Born to Run is a love letter to running riddled with medical studies, running history, and personal anecdotes. Although the tale McDougall weaves is a compelling one, his sometimes movie-esque writing style and inclination for cliff hangers often had me wondering about the authenticity of the book’s happenings. By the time I finished the book, I found that everything I’d read could be safely filed into two categories: things I’d like to believe  and things I know to be absolutely true.

Things I’d Like to Believe

In this first category is a theme that McDougall touches on frequently throughout the book: running makes us better people. While describing the life and career of Joe Vigil, an Olympic running coach, McDougall writes about this philosophy, one which he obviously shares.

“Vigil couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but his gut kept telling him that there was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to loverunning. The engineering was certainly the same: both depending on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding…. Perhaps all our troubles—all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.” 

After reading that, who wouldn’t want to take up running, right? Throughout the book, McDougall uses various case studies and tribal histories to illustrate that we are born-to-be runners trapped in a modern, mostly sedentary culture. While the science is interesting enough, I was never fully convinced by its folklore-like nature or the way that McDougall substitutes hodged podged information for solid facts. I personally found one of McDougall’s subthemes to be far more realistic and believable: running promotes emotional intelligence. Although that exact phrase never appears on the page, it’s a theme that McDougall alludes to over and over again. He tells stories of numerous super athletes who somehow manage to do the undo-able—run hundreds of miles in deadly heat or finish marathons while consuming nothing but beer and pizza along the way, for example—and after each account, he returns to the same theory.

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked…. Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”

As a new runner—after a year of steady practice, I’ve finally allowed myself the title—I’d like to believe that running cultivates a tolerance for pain and an unfailing physical and emotional endurance unseen in non-runners. Running certainly helped me endure my last painful months in Ecuador, where my running story coincidentally began. Despite the altitude and my constant inability to really catch my breath, I didn’t find it to be so miserable anymore. But then again, I knew a little bit more about misery by then. Other runners and writers have certainly ascribed to this idea, too. As Haruki Murakami so elegantly states in his running-themed memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Of course, McDougall’s most controversial claims center around his now infamous assertions that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot.”  The author makes a solid and believable case for the benefits of barefoot running. It’s not hard to imagine that major shoe companies would exploit runners by peddling overly-fabricated shoes that actually exacerbate running injuries rather than prevent them. However, McDougall’s sardonic tone paired with the large scale barefoot running movement that was born after the book’s release—a movement that undoubtedly generated a significant sum of money for multiple big name shoe companies—does seem a bit suspect. Unfortunately, those claims along with the hodge podge science I mentioned earlier left me with the nagging suspicion that McDougall’s love for running may not have been his only motivation for writing the book.

Things I Know to Be True

Even as I dismissed some of the author’s more extreme claims, I found myself deeply identifying with the few nuggets of truth gleaming amid the exaggerated facts and heavy-handed cliff hangers. Throughout the book, running is portrayed as an ethereal, peaceful, and even sensuous act.  My favorite description of running comes from one of the female super athletes who describes the feeling she experiences while running as something akin to a romance: 

“But yeah, Ann insisted, running was romantic; and no, of course her friends didn’t get it because they’d never broken through. For them, running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans: get on the scale, get depressed, get your headphones on, and get it over with. But you can’t muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it. Relax enough, and your body becomes so familiar with the cradle-rocking rhythm that you almost forget you’re moving. And once you break through to that soft, half-levitating flow, that’s when the moonlight and champagne show up: ‘You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off,’ Ann would explain. You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing; be aware of how much sweat is beading on your back; make sure you treat yourself to cool water and salty snack and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel. What could be more sensual than paying exquisite attention to your own body?” 

Before this book, romantic isn’t the word I would’ve used to describe running, but I, too, have been lulled into that “cradle-rocking rhythm,” so comfortable that your mind wanders to another place and you barely even realize that you’re moving.  When I run, I find myself in a place void of stress and worry, to-do lists and rushed dinner preparations, corporate criticisms and pressures. For me, running is almost like meditating. As another featured super athlete explains:

“’When I’m out on a long run…the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn’t going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It’s just time and the movement and the motion. That’s what I love—just being a barbarian, running through the woods.’”

Running has gotten me through painful breakups, debilitating pre-interview nervousness, post bad-work-day frustrations, and relentless culture shock anxiety. Even when I fall out of my running routine for a few days (or weeks, let’s be real), I always come back to it, because running quiets down all the extraneous noise in my life and allows me to think about nothing but my own body, the way I feel right in that moment, and the deep calm that comes with just breathing in and out.

Perhaps the brightest nugget of truth is this: “Ask nothing from your running, and you’ll get more than you ever imagined!”

I started running during my last five months in Ecuador. Not to take on the prestigious title of runner, but to train for my four day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which I had planned to do with my sister in late August. I figured: What better way to prepare for hiking at altitude than to run at altitude? For five months before our expedition, I ran in Loja’s various parks and the city soccer stadium, sometimes passing others—like the Loja police recruits—but, more often, watching others pass me—usually aspiring Olympic speedwalkers. (It’s true. I couldn’t make this up.) I wasn’t running for those size 6 jeans or to improve my already abysmal mile time. I was simply hoping to shield myself against altitude sickness and that paralyzing feeling of desperation that comes when you are in the middle of nowhere and feel like you just can’t take one more step. I had no expectations for my running other than to simply go out and do it, even if that meant taking walking breaks between sprints.  Five months later, I spent four glorious days on the Inca Trail with my sister, and neither of us got altitude sickness. 

To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I continued running even after moving back home to the States. It was still humid and miserable in early September, but my love for running somehow grew and grew. As McDougall said, I asked nothing from my running, and yet I got so much in return: an outlet for stress, patience with myself and others, self-discipline that I never knew I had, the ability to let go of my perfectionism and be proud of both my long and small runs, and more than anything, joy in simply stretching my legs and pushing forward.