May 26, 2013

Checking in

The end of May is almost upon us, and so far this month I've finished a grand total of one book — an all-time low for possibly the past decade. The book was Americanah, which makes it a bit better: this is a novel that satisfied my constant hunger for stories better than most do. I'm never really sated as far as stories are concerned, but I've kept thinking about Americanah over the past few weeks, and I've felt more emotionally and intellectually fulfilled than most books tend to leave me.

In addition to reading one book, so far this is my fourth post in May, and I'd also only blogged six times in April. So what's happening? Well, the main problem is that I feel like I'm constantly on the brink of exhaustion. This isn't really about how much I've been working, but about the specific pattern of my work: because for the past three months I've been covering for someone else in addition to doing my regular hours, I ended up with an awkward schedule that left me without a full day off from Thursday to Thursday every fortnight. Unsurprisingly, when that day off finally came around, I'd spend it not doing much of anything instead of making any progress on the reading and writing fronts (or, say, the laundry front).

Also, working alternate weekends without a well-placed day off in the middle of the week made simple and pleasant life things like weekend plans incredibly strenuous. Over the past few months, I've travelled with my partner, I've been to London to see gigs, I've had friends visit, etc. These are all things that are important to me and that I really want to do, but when I spend my weekend off doing one of them, I end up feeling that I need another weekend at home to recover from the weekend out — only one won't come around for another two weeks. And perhaps inevitably I have complicated feeling about my desperate need for down time, even if I'm getting better at accepting that this is just a part of who I am.

I'm not trying to complain here, because the past year is still fresh enough in my mind that I realise what a blessing it is to have work. I also know that I'm very, very fortunate to have a job that I love; a job that doesn't make me resent the hours I give to it and that doesn't feel separate from my real self or from the things that really matter in my life. But as much as that's the case, there are also other things I want to do. I know that balancing what you need and what you want, or even all the different things you want, is part of the constant struggle of adulthood. And I also know that, as better writers than me have put it recently, we don't do ourselves or others any favours when we measure our lives against our perception of how together everyone else has it or how much they seem to be doing. Mainly I'm talking about this because there's comfort to be found in the knowledge that this is a common struggle.

However, I have good news: my work hours are about to change again, and the new schedule is one that I think will make it much easier to balance all the different things I want to do with my life. I'm going to have a couple of free mornings a week instead of afternoons, and I find it so much easier to blog first thing in the morning rather than after a day at work. This, by the way, has also been a source of tension for me: I keep thinking that a "real" writer should be able to do it whenever, even though by now I should know that holding on to "shoulds" is the bane of my life. I've also avoided blogging to some extent because I end up feeling that when I'm tired I do everything half-heartedly, and if I'm not giving it my all I might as well not be doing it. But recently Renay wisely reminded me that the habit of writing begets more writing: casual, conversational posts like this one, where I don't say anything of importance, are going to pave the way for moments when I feel I'm at my best. Keeping the habit of writing is half the battle — so I'm going to try my best to do that.

With that out of the way, I'm going to share a couple of links that are relevant to my life and to what's been on my mind of late:

  • First of all, Iris came to visit me recently, and I got to be a Very Bad Influence and convince her to take home a suitcase full of books. I didn't remain immune to the allure of new books myself, so it's only fair that I also share my acquisitions with you:

    The top three books are the ones I bought: Electricity by Victoria Glendinning, Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore, and Paris Was Yesterday: 1925-1939 by Janet Flanner. The ones at the bottom are my most recent pile of library books: I brought them home on impulse because reading The Eagle of the Ninth left me in the mood for more books about the ancient world. I got Song for a Dark Queen and Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff and Michael Morpurgo's retelling of Beowulf. Also, it doesn't hurt that they're short, because for all my rebelling against the tyranny of stats I'm not above trying to trick myself into thinking my reading has been productive by reading lots of short books. Contradictions: I am made of them.

  • I had stars in my eyes while reading this post about friendship in YA:
    [W]e live in a world where friendship is often treated like second place, and as something that should be set aside for romance. Whether you’re being told to tolerate something hateful your friend’s boyfriend said to you because they’re so in love, or you’re dating someone new and you slowly stop calling your friends, you’re reminded on a regular basis that the most important form of relationship in this society is romantic love, and that anything else is lesser. I like to see narratives that push back on that, that position friends and other kinds of relationships as great, important, and valuable too. And I suspect I am not the only reader who feels this way.
    YES. Also, the post was a good reminder of why I loved Sweethearts by Sara Zarr so very much. I can't believe that all these years later I've yet to read another one of her novels.

  • Amy's brilliant and heartfelt On Loving a Person really resonated with me, and, as the words of my favourite writers will often do, helped me articulate a few things that I hadn't quite been able to make sense of myself.

  • And here's another Amy being awesome. She's so perceptive and smart, and I'm so glad she's been blogging more again.

  • Clare's review of Tiny Beautiful Things makes for a good companion to the first Amy's piece — at least in my mind:
    By generous, I mean a very specific kind of emotional generosity, giving people the benefit of the doubt, an almost aggressive and definitely active kind of empathy. I didn’t write this down in my commonplace book, but, at one point, Strayed discusses trying to be the best, most generous, most sympathetic version of yourself that you can be, even if you don’t feel that way at that moment. I’ve taken that deeply to heart. It is easy to be cruel and careless with others; generosity of spirit is a difficult thing to do at the best of times. But the most difficult things in life, as Sugar points out again and again, are often the things that are worth the most.
    This is hard; so hard. But I truly believe they're the best possible words to live by.

  • John Green's Butler University Commencement Address kind of helped me put the last year of my life into perspective. How many times have you heard this story before? Like millions of people all over the world, I was someone who did well in school and was told by the adults in her life that she had "potential" — whatever that means in today's brave new world. So I studied and then studied some more, finished graduate school with first-class honours, and was released into a world where I was about to face an amount of failure and rejection on a scale completely unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. To say this had a deep psychological impact on me is probably the understatement of the century. John Green says,
    But still, you are probably going to be a nobody for a while. You are going to make that journey from strength to weakness, and while it won’t be an easy trip, it is a heroic one. For in learning how to be a nobody, you will learn how not to be a jerk. And for the rest of your life, if you are able to remember your hero’s journey from college grad to underling, you will be less of a jerk. You will tip well. You will empathize. You will be a mentor, and a generous one. In short, you will become like the people you imagined in silence a few minutes ago.
    And you know, I have a bit of a complicated relationship with the idea that you need to experience bad things directly to become a kinder person. We're all capable of using our imaginations to place ourselves in someone else's shoes, right? And isn't that also why we read? But of course that what John Green is saying isn't as simple as that. My politics haven't changed over the past year and a half — I had always rejected a simplistic understanding of the world that drew direct links between any sort of innate worth and success in life. Still, the fact that this is now a piece of knowledge that's deeply embedded into the fibre of who I am rather than just a theoretical concept is probably not a bad thing. At the very least, it provides a useful narrative onto which I can peg some very difficult experiences, and that in itself is by no means small.

  • Lastly, I wanted to talk about something I don't really have a link for: I've been thinking a lot about how we sometimes flatten out the nuances in other people's experiences with things, namely with pieces of media. We're all trained to use "like" and "dislike" as verbal shortcuts, I guess, but sometimes the experiences that don't quite fit into those categories are the ones that are the most interesting to discuss. Every now and then I see a comment where someone expresses frustration that, say, a book review where they voiced some ambiguity about an aspect of an otherwise beloved novel received several "Oh, I guess I'll skip it, then!" responses. This is hard to talk about, because a) you don't want to make people self-conscious about the comments they leave, b) you don't want to sound ungrateful towards people who took the time to actually engage and c) we're all aware that we've most likely done this ourselves. And that's the thing, really — I see this as a cultural problem rather than an individual one. We do this because "like" and "dislike" are the reactions that are given the most prominence, and so they become the two poles through which we filter all experiences. I don't know what to do about this, really, but I want to maybe try to train myself to focus more on the shades of grey.

    1. I'm glad your schedule is going to improve for you! I love the quote from Green's commencement address - it does seem that people who never have periods of being a nobody do turn out to be jerks, doesn't it?

    2. I wouldn't perhaps go as far as saying that, but I think that for me personally the experience might have been useful. Anyway, I'm really excited at the prospect of blogging more again! I've missed you all a ton.

    3. I hope your mornings make a difference! I too can't concentrate nearly as well after work, and so my mornings are very precious. Which is why the children are often late for school--it is hard to admit it is time to wake them up....

    4. No matter how much I cushion my "dislikes" about a book between my "likes," I still feel like if I don't ONLY talk about the positive stuff my review will come off as ambiguous and terrible and that I didn't actually like the book because of that one disliked thing. Maybe because whenever I read other people's reviews, I personally remember the disliked elements more than the liked? So I assume other people will do the same to my reviews?

      I think also it's easier to describe why I disliked something than why I liked it. If I hated a character I can back up the hate with examples; it's harder for me to do that with characters I LIKE. I always just end up saying something inadequate ("I liked them because I DID.").

    5. So, that thing about reading short books for stats? One of the things I do at the library is work with kids who don't like reading because it is really hard work for them to finish a book and that can be disheartening. I'll often give them shorter books, graphic novels, or books in verse, and this helps them build up a sense of accomplishment with their reading. I like to use Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson as an example of a short book that packs at least the punch of a longer novel.

      Then I realized that this is a valid way for me to read, too, especially as I have been struggling with reading lately because stupid life keeps getting in the way. I get discouraged (and in turn, tend to read less) if the book I have sitting on my bedside table remains what appears to be half-read for weeks, even if I am actually reading regularly. Short books are healthy for people to read, I think -- even as doorstops can give one a sense of accomplishment at the end, a little stack of shorter books can do the same thing.

      So, to end this novel of a comment... novellas and short novels to help bolster reading confidence: not just for kids!

    6. 1) I cannot imagine re-entering the workplace after being home for so long! Granted, to a large extent my disabilities dictate my schedule, but when I see what working full time does to my friends & family, I'm fairly horrified. I wish, what w our much vaunted efficiency, etc. that it was an option to work part time for less pay (but still a reasonable living wage) and only work full time if you wanted lots of money. Wouldn't that be lovely? Anyway, my sympathies go out to you w your new schedule & I hope when it changes you find more energy!

      2) Squeeeee re: your thoughts on Americanah! I'm still waiting for it to come out here, but I cannot wait to read it!

      3) I've now requested that Atwood book (how did I not know about it either?! I'd also recommend the book Debt to you, can't remember the author right now, but it's a recent-ish book) & ILL requesteded the fairy one (which is called At the Bottom of the Garden in the US for some reason) & am tempted to ILL the Maitland too. Having read Gossip From the Forest, I *adored* it & now want to read all of Maitland's work! It includes a retold fairy tale at the end of each chapter.

    7. Regarding your last point, I really do think such comments have more to do with just saying something to leave a comment, rather than signaling actual anticipated future behavior based on that one review. I am always reminded of the scene in Gone with the Wind when Rhett Butler goes around the neighborhood with his little girl Bonnie just to drop calling cards to say hello. I think of most comments [unless there is an actual substantive discussion going on] as calling cards; just saying hello, and trying to say hello differently than the other comments on the post!

    8. yay you posted! I've missed you.

      aw, I love what Clare says about Tiny Beautiful Things, I remember discovering the column and reading it all at once. I can remember specific entries and being blown away by her responses and thinking they were indeed very generous and wondering if I could ever be like that, sigh. Some of what she's said is almost a standard of behavior I keep in mind.

      and aw, Jill! I love what you say about comments. I think that's true in a way.

      I can relate to not reading as much, I've been reading much less myself these days, sigh. And lately I've started tons of books only to set them aside.

    9. I have to chuckle, because even your conversational chatty posts are more substantive than 99.9% of anything else out there! I'm glad to see you on here, but I understand when real life takes priority. We all go through phases so your current busy-ness is something that will come and go. You do what you can. And as to your last point, I have such frustration with this sometimes. I will rave on and on about how much I liked a book, with a tiny disclaimer of some kind (just a tiny one!) and that one negative point is what people hone in on, and use to determine they will not read the book.

    10. Well, I like this post. ;) I've been in your situation where you're desperate for a break, and I'm glad you're getting one! Everybody needs it.

    11. Charlotte: Aw, I can imagine! There's just something about the early morning that makes you feel the day is full of potential, whereas in the afternoon and evening the pressure starts to kick in.

      Anastasia: I know what you mean about finding it easier to explain why you disliked something than why you liked it. And I think that might be another cultural problem area relating to how we talk about media and conceive of criticism. Explaining why something works takes as much intellectual engagement as explaining why it doesn't, but often people will equate "critical" with "negative", and even go as far as measure how smart and thoughtful a blogger is by the amount of negative reviews they post. It's easy to feel stupid when you like something and other people don't, whereas disliking something everyone else seems to love... it can feel really lonely, and that's not a small thing, but there's also an air of intellectual respectability to it, like you have a form of discernment others lack. Anyway, to return to what you said - yes, I think the disliked elements just stick with us more for whatever reason, and that's part of the problem.

      Kiirsin: Thank you so much for saying that - it's not that I hadn't thought of it, but I really needed to hear it from someone else. No more slipping into shame for trying to rebuild my own readerly confidence and boost my sense of achievement.

      Eva: "I wish, what w our much vaunted efficiency, etc. that it was an option to work part time for less pay (but still a reasonable living wage) and only work full time if you wanted lots of money. Wouldn't that be lovely?" Yes, yes, it really really would. At this point in my life I actually want to work full time (though obviously money and the lack of a living wage otherwise factor into that), but I think I would really help if all my hours were contracted and I had adequate breaks. Sigh, why must life be so hard? Also, I'm so excited to read Gossip From the Forest :D I saw Maitland recently at a fairy tales panel (with Jack Zipes! Squee!) and she actually read from the retellings at the end of each chapter. The Hansel and Gretel one sounded so awesome, and she just came across as a really smart and thoughtful writer. Lastly, thanks for recommending Debt - will definitely look for it!

      Jill: Yes, yes, I agree absolutely. Often comments are just a roundabout way of saying hi and letting your blogging friends know we're still here reading - which is why I feel so ungrateful even bringing this up! It's just that every now and then I see someone slip into thinking they must suck at conveying nuance (and naturally I've been there myself), so maybe it helps if we all become more aware of why this might happen?

      Amy: Are all the columns in the book still available online? If so I'll probably not resist the temptation to start reading them. I fail at being as generous as I'd like a lot of the time, but keeping it in mind as something to aspire to is probably useful in itself.

      Sandy: Aw, I sympathise. But Jill and Amy are probably right, and I want to do a better job of remembering that people will not necessarily shy away from the book/movie/TV series in question because of me.

      Tasha: Thanks! One more week and then hopefully things will change for the better!

    12. You sound like you've been a very, very busy bee of late. Even if that time wasn't spent on reading. I'm glad to hear you might get a better balance with your new work schedule. I must agree I find it so much more enjoyable and easier to write in the morning. I look forward to more chatty posts from you.

    13. That does sound like a tiring schedule! I would have done the same thing as you - continued on as normal rather than leave anything out of my life, which would have left me exhasuted. That's the price of having so many things we care about, when you think about it we're the lucky ones.

      I can so relate to the writing thing, and I remind myself all the time that writing anything at all will help me as a writer. It's hard to think that way though, that a post about nothing is better than nothing at all.

      And I do the like/dislike thing too... I guess if I can connect with a negative review and if the blogger's reasons for not liking them book much resonate with me, I end up thinking that it's not worth trying that particulat one. There are so many others that I would try first, because I'm more sure that I'll like them.

    14. The constant exhaustion from having too many things is a daily experiencen and I deeply relate as this is why I have been a very unfaithful blogger (and commenter). I just can't keep up. But I do love posts like yours, so keep showing up! ;-)

      The like and dislike thing is a real struggle. Whenever there was one tiny thing I wasn't 100% positive about in a book that was recommended to me, I'm always afraid to mention it, for fear that people would understand it as a rejection of the book.
      Alas, I admit I also tend to do it, using time as an excuse - as in I have no time to commit to books I might not like as I have too many to read already...

    15. "...casual, conversational posts like this one, where I don't say anything of importance..." <---While I am not trying to dismiss how you may feel about this post, as for me, I disagree. I found so much of what you said in this post incredibly valuable to me. So yeah, I really must say, "Thank you, Renay, for giving Ana wise words of advice" and "Thank you, Ana, for following it...because not only are they wise just as spoken, but because you share so much of meaning even when you don't realize it."

      "...I should know that holding on to "shoulds" is the bane of my life..." <---Aaargh, how I wish that sentiment didn't apply to either you or me!!!

      I so hope, Ana, that your new schedule will bring you a heavy dose of sanity and well-being. I hate complaining about feeling overwhelmed (probably because I know I do it far to much), but I firmly believe it is one of most insidious harms to our mental well-being.

      I should probably shut up now before this comment gets "too long" but I just wanted to also thank you for what you said in that last paragraph. I was just struggling with that in trying to write about a book I just finished. There was something about the book that annoyed me. But I was afraid to give in more than a passing mention when talking about the book because of exactly what you said. I didn't want people to just then dismiss the book, because I really really did find so many other things of value in the book...things I'm not sure I've seen discussed in quite those ways before. But at the same time I would have loved to also really talk about what annoyed me. *sigh*

    16. Oh girl, I so feel you on the schedule challenges! I've really struggled with the jobs where I never have two days off in a row, where I'm working strange, unconventional hours...and then I beat myself up for being traditional enough to WANT conventional hours, rather than just fitting my writing and real life stuff in where I have the time. It's a real struggle. I hope your new schedule helps you with this!

      I'm glad you enjoyed Americanah. I just finished writing up my own thoughts on it. Such an amazing book. Try not to beat yourself up for not reading very much--we've all been there. :)

    17. Jessica: I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds mornings easier. Thank you - I look forward to writing more chatty posts as well! And who knows, maybe one day I'll return to proper reviews :P

      Joanna: I know it's better to have lots of passions and interests that you have trouble squeezing in than to be detached from life. But still: my kingdom for more time, or at least better time management skills.

      Larissa: I promise to try :P What everyone's comments helped me see is that maybe we overestimate how much everyone really means it when they say "I won't read/watch x". I'll try to keep this in mind instead of coming to believe I'm incapable of conveying ambiguity :P

      Debi: Thank you so much <3 And yeah, exhaustion has a really insidious impact on... overall quality of life, I guess, and it's probably a good idea to be as open about it as possible and to avoid slipping into guilt. Of course, that's easier said than done. Regarding the last point, I think all we can do is put our words out there and hope for the best. Just talk about what we want however we want to and accept we can't control how others will read it. Now I'll just have to see if I can follow my own advice. PS: NO SUCH THING AS "TOO LONG".

    18. Laura: The guilt for being "too conventional" is THE WORST. I mean, I know weekends exist for a reason, and that I really shouldn't be ashamed of myself for craving what the majority of humanity has agreed is the best work/rest pattern - and yet the niggling thoughts are there. And yay for Americanah! I keep thinking about it, and hopefully at some point I'll feel energised enough to write about all the reasons why it's amazing :D

    19. You, you, you. I hope your new work schedule makes it a little easier to juggle all the different things you want to do in your life. I obviously love it when you can blog more, but regardless of that, I want you to have time to do every awesome thing you can think of. Because you are lovely. And also for you to come visit New York because that would be amazing.

      AND hooray to your final bullet point. I think at least some of the time the "I'll skip it then!" reaction isn't necessarily ignoring the nuances, but just figuring out a reason to take something off our infinite TBR lists. I don't know if that makes it better! But for me, there are so so so many books in the world, and when I already feel ambivalent about a book like The Dubliners, I'm willing to take a minor negative point about that book as a reason to stop worrying about it.

    20. Just wanted to say that, as a regular reader of yours, I think posts like these are still great :)
      Hope your new schedule works for you (I totally agree about mornings being more productive)

    21. I meant to comment on this yesterday and I got distracted by all of the amazing links! Thank you for sharing them.

      I hope that you are able to find some relaxation and less exhaustion in the coming weeks with your new schedule. Get some much deserved rest, dear Ana!

    22. It sounds like your schedule change is long overdue! I hope the change works out for you. And I wholeheartedly agree with Renay: get into the habit of writing.

      I'm happy my post was of some use to you. And remember, that also means being generous towards ourselves.

    23. I was wondering if your work schedule was starting to interfere with your blogging, since you were posting so little recently (and I guess you know how often we all wait to here from you, now! lol). I was thinking of you today and yesterday quite a bit, so was most happy to see this post here! I"m so glad you love your work. THat life work balance is something everyone struggles with, I think. If you get mornings off and can do what you like and then work in the afternoon, then that's awesome.

      I've been slowing my blogging because my life suddenly got super busy too this month. I have so many books to review, and just things to say in general.....thank you for talking about the 'grey' in book reviews. I usually only decide if I"m not going to read something if the review is very bad, although sometimes I just keep the review in mind while I read the book, to compare to how I find the book. I'd like to see more thoughtful and complete reviews out there, so I do my best to say what I liked about a book and what I didn't, always being sensitive to it being a real author out there who wrote it.

      I love as ever the posts you linked to! I have some reading laid out for me now :-)

      And yaay to travelling to London, and meeting Iris, and in general living a life you are loving! That's so good to hear after the long year you had last year, Ana.

    24. I've just noted 'Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore' is a book on your agenda. The title and author's name rang a bell with me. Lucy is one of the commentators on the excellent TV documentary series: Glamour's Golden Age. Lucy appears in the program 2 of 3 titled 'Beautiful and Damned'. It appears to be showing today (28/05/2013 @ 22:55) on BBC4. Just thought I'd mention in case of interest. I found this documentary series provided a marvellous insight into a period that has always fascinated me.

    25. Jenny: One of these days I'll make it to New York! Promise! And thank you, for everything <3 BTW, I'm super excited about your podcast (and hopefully I'll get on top of things again and will tell you so in a proper comment soon :P). You and Joanna and Larissa made a really good point about time. Instead of feeling like I've failed if I cause someone to write off a book, maybe I should just accept that everyone has limited time and it's okay to use whatever information we find to decide where we want to invest our time. Nobody can read all the things, and as much as I want all my blogging friends to read the books I'm ambiguous about and come discuss them with me, they deserve to invest their time wisely too.

      Emma: Aww, thank you so much. It does help to hear that <3

      Lu: You're most welcome! And thank YOU so much for your kindness and encouragement.

      Clare: And remember, that also means being generous towards ourselves. I think occasionally I do need the reminder. Thank you <3

      Susan: Aw. I've really missed you. And yes, despite everything I'm keenly aware of what a blessing this year has been compared to everything I went through before my life got to this stage. I'm sorry to hear things have been a bit hectic for you too, although I know not all busy-ness is bad! Here's to finding that elusive balance!

    26. I was really sorry to read this. I hope that as time goes on you will be able to have a bit more balance. I think that most of us who read, really value that quiet alone time without society/work infringing on it. Thanks for writing about it though. I suspect more people feel this way than talk about it.

    27. Sometimes the good thing about being so very busy with real life is that it re-energizes the reading and writing life, although the effect is not immediate.

      I think waiting for that to happen is hard, because you can let yourself stay busy and miss the moment when you've digested it enough to say something.

      Kind of like commenting too soon on someone's blog post, before you've fully digested the shades of gray.

    28. So glad to read this post... I have been feeling a little slump-y lately myself. Almost all of this post resonates with me on some level. I'm glad you're still writing. My writing has tapered off... I am just too busy with life, I guess! Not a terrible thing, but I miss it. And I agree about the book review thing -- I always feel like, "No! Read it if you want! Then we can have a discussion!"

    29. So glad to read a post from you Ana. I've been very out of the loop forever it seems like and it is just a combination of work, activities - just life. I struggle so much with wanting to play catch up and then only to end up feeling more frustrated when I realize it's impossible. You can only do so much you know. Ok, I'm rambling. Just wanted to say hi and looking forward to you review of Americanah!

    30. Blogging should always be a joy and not a chore. When time presents itself blog away! And when there's time famine be grateful you're busy with life. It all evens out in the end.

    31. I've been having trouble blogging too recently. Is it the season for it or something? Nice to have you back, anyway!

    32. Hey! I'm just trying to get a bit back into things and popped by to see what you were up to. Wonderful thigns, as always, it seems. Loved your links (and thank you to the link to me!!) and SO JEALOUS that you and Iris got to hang out again. Wish I could see you both again :)

      I completely agree with your sentiment on the 'oh I'll skip it' comments. I don't know how to respond to them at all... and then feel guilty for leaving them myself!


    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.