A Book Review: Just Read It

Celia is the young daughter of a world famous magician and Marco is an orphan, plucked from an orphanage by a mysterious stranger. Unbeknownst to these children, their guardians have enlisted them in a duel to the death in a battle of magical might to be showcased in a traveling night circus. Celia and Marko display their talents by constructing ever more elaborate magic in the black and white tents of the circus. Before they discover the grave consequences of the game they’re playing, they find each other and fall in love, using the circus to demonstrate their devotion to one another. Meanwhile the romantic misfits of the world simultaneously fall in love with their creations forming a devout following of writers, artists, and dreamers.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a visually stunning debut novel full of fantasy and romance. The imagery evokes the art and films of Tim Burton with an eclectic cast of quirky characters and every visual element of the circus clad in only black, white, and grey hues. Morgenstern takes us to the mystical atmosphere of 19th century Europe while adding her own creative flair in the intricate details while the story as a whole makes a moving statement regarding the power of art on the beholder. I agree with one of her characters who says, “The finest of pleasures are always the unexpected ones.”

My only complaint about this story regards the character of Celia. Although I admire her independence and intelligence, I’m getting tired of reading about female characters whose stories center on their rebellions and/or devotions to male characters. Celia’s whole life is spent reacting to the men in her life. She takes control and uses her brain to face all challenges and I respect and admire the author for that portrayal of a strong woman. But I would have loved to see one scene where she was acting in total independence and not in reaction to a man.

 

A Book Review: Just Read It

A powerful princess of the Jinn (or genie) world falls in love with a human philosopher and spawns a race of humans that will play a key role in an impending war between the human world and the Fairy world. In the 21st century, a revolution erupts against the Jinn who escape their realm in order to conquer and terrorize humanity. Told from our ancestors point of view 1001 years in the future and inspired by Islamic mythology and theology, this is a layered and complex story with a wide range of characters. It is a whimsical tale full or popular culture references and humor but mixed with dazzling moments of philosophical insight. However, I will say this isn’t a book for readers looking for a straightforward and linear plot. Prepare yourself for stories within stories and digressions within digressions.

Buy it on Amazon

Read reviews on Goodreads

Sister Screams

I’ve been told in direct and indirect ways over the years that my stepmom Cindy and her children Chelsy, Carrie, and Cory were not, and certainly are not now, my family. I suppose on paper that is technically correct. After the divorce papers were signed and assets divided, I became an ally on the wrong side. But my experience of the situation differs slightly. You see, my first memories in life include these three blonde and energetic kids behaving as family. Perhaps that is part of where my confusion arises. I remember timidly standing across from them in the entryway of a Pizza Hut as a shy little four-year-old, my future stepmom Cindy standing behind her kids and my father standing behind me and my three sisters.

Other memories float up sometimes to meddle with facts. Chelsy used to count my ribs, her fingers tickling my thin skin, working their way up to my heart. Carrie used to ride horses and show me how to brush them and feed them carrots or peppermints. I remember road trips, Christmases in pajamas, birthday parties, and 4H fairs. I remember splashing in a bathtub with my twin sister and my brother Cory and standing in a row to brush our teeth with glittery blue paste. In fact, most of my memories from early childhood star my twin sister and my stepbrother. The youngest and most oblivious to adult tensions and dramas, we formed an innocent little band too busy with kickball or Nintendo to be bothered too much with the moody adults and teenagers.

But sometimes the drama permeated our shields of naivety. My memory isn’t chock full of only idyllic, happy moments. There were odd moments of mysterious tensions, erupting tempers, and feelings of sudden fear and confusion. I didn’t understand why Chelsy would disappear for weeks or months at a time. I didn’t fully comprehend why we would talk to a psychologist about how her absences affected us, so I stayed quiet and listened. I didn’t know why the police were at the door but I was excited and scared to find out they knew where we lived. I didn’t understand why when Chelsy reappeared with her pieced and tattooed friends, she would be so tired and angry. Or why the next day she would act so light and happy as though she were drifting through a dream where all her cares were taken away.

What I did know about Chelsy, I often misread and idealized. Eventually, I tried to emulate my misinterpretations by listening to angry feminist music and flipping off everyone in my family every chance I got. Chelsy was everything I was not: rebellious, unafraid of authority, angry, loud, challenging, unabashedly original in her creativity, confrontational, wild, free, and energetic. At least, that is my memory of her. I desperately wanted her attention and to make up for her anger somehow. She would be okay if she knew how much I loved her. I would show her and make her see. I would wear black, write poetry, struggle with my artistry, and she would see that she wasn’t alone and that she could open up to me.

Chelsy 2We’re very business-like in my family. When something significant or noteworthy occurs, we gather for a family meeting. I understand now why this professional detachment may have been a necessary coping mechanism, but at the time I didn’t understand the clinical and impersonal delivery of just the facts of the matter. But I did my best to respond in a professional and equally detached manner since that seemed to be the expectation. “Chelsy killed herself yesterday. The funeral is white noise, white noise, I’m sorry what did he just say? Ok, there is no way this is happening. Ignore the crying and just nod and go back to your day.” And I did. I’m not sure what my day entailed, but I remember my twin sister grabbing me by the shoulders asking me to react. And I remember my absolute refusal. Maybe I’d picked up more from Chelsy than I knew. I didn’t know until later that this is when I began to disassociate from my feelings, my life, and myself.

I didn’t really come out of my denial until the funeral. I can see the red and purple marks from the rope around her neck. The dry eyes of my father looking down at her before the service and his quick disappearance as other guests came in. The strange woman I’d never met standing up to talk about addiction and Chelsy’s fiancé walking out of the service. Yes, addiction is a tragic disease but why does a twelve-year-old feel the urge to drink her cares away? Why does she chase her brother around with a butcher knife when she is upset? Why does she turn to Heroin and write poetry about “secrets” and “shame?” Why we were all in therapy but Chelsy was not? She was the one crying, no, screaming for help. I know part of the answers hide in a small house in Minnesota, in childhood memories that I cannot reach without Chelsy to guide me.

I know I will not get straight answers to these questions. So I will continue to quietly fill in the blanks by time-traveling back to my memories of her and diagnosing the situation through adult eyes. But when her birthday comes around I don’t want to be quiet, I want to scream out on her behalf or at least break my silence long enough to say she deserved better. She was a child. An angry, wild child full of justifiable rage and if she wasn’t my sister, then she was my dear friend and I loved her. I miss her today, yes, twenty years later, and I’ll miss her forever.

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Artwork by Chelsy Marie Van Orden

 

Angry Anti-Abuse Anthems

If you are a survivor of any sort of abuse, you may notice that you not only feel obligated to keep secrets for your abuser/s but that you also fear potential repeat abuse when you do speak up. As I explore my past and deal with the feelings of guilt and fear, I’ve found these songs invaluable in reminding and empowering me to speak up and share my truth even when my voice shakes.

Lily Allen- Hard Out Here

Amanda Palmer- Runs in the Family

Rihanna- Take a Bow

Fiona Apple- Shadowboxer

Mariana’s Trench- Say Anything

Madonna- Human Nature

Michael & Janet Jackson – Scream

Garbage- When I Grow Up

Sara Bareilles- King of Anything

Christina Aguilera- Fighter

Twenty-One Pilots- Heathens

Sacrilegious Scribbles 

Here is an excerpt from a 1994 entry when I decided it best to jot down a very thorough prayer. It’s basically a contract if you write them down, you know. I added some notes because I just couldn’t resist and I figure I’m bound for hell anyway at this point. (Joking. Kinda.)

Dear Lord,

I pray for L****. (A boy who assaulted me in 1993). Please help him with his problems. I love you the most (move over Mother Theresa, coming through). Please forgive me for all my sins (because as a nine year old I’ve got a lot of them). Thank you for everything you’ve ever given to me. (And are sure to continue giving me after that whole ‘love you most’ comment).

Please help the poor and the homeless. Please help Chelsey with what’s she’s going through. Help Dad with his feelings. (Men really shouldn’t have them at all, you know. I hope you can address that glitch) Help Mom. (real specific, I’m sure the angels are gathering in their strategy room as we speak). Don’t let there be a fire or let anyone be sick. Help the people at Oaknoll (a nursing home nearby).

Let everyone get right to sleep and have good dreams (especially me… sorry)… (No, I actually wrote that in my diary.) Let them have a good day and be in good moods. Don’t let there be any erosions (a word I had recently learned and quickly added to my list of worries), earthquakes, hurricanes, tornatos (tornadoes), thunderstorms, rain, snow, or sleet. (Whoa, I’m apparently anti-weather). Don’t let anyone get raped, murdered, killed or kidnapped. (Well that took a turn. But I like how the rain bit took priority). You are the coolest ever (I’m clearly hoping I can flatter myself into his good graces here and avoid that whole fire/kidnapping/snow situation. Worth a shot. He’ll never suspect). I love you. (The most!!) Amen. 

Postponed Postscript…14 years later…

 

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Honest, Horrible, Humbling Humanity

I keep asking myself why I started a blog. When I read other blogs or Google blog topics, I find a lot of material similar to what I’d expect from magazine articles. You know, DIY projects, health and beauty advice, endless how-to articles: how to take the most inspiring Instagram pic of your microscopic lunch, how to color your cares away in books conveniently for sale now on Amazon, how to disguise self-promoting sales pitches as altruistic advice, how to write the same boring contrived bullshit everyone else writes so you can finally “matter” to the world.  Just remember that blogs aren’t about sharing your diary-style diatribes, because no one gives a crap. Sorry Anne Frank, you’d need to learn about search engine optimization and selfie skills to be read these days.

Ack! I sound so bitter. I’m sorry I brought Anne Frank into my rant. (I love you.) I’m just sick of hearing that the only way people can be heard and “matter” is by buying into the notion that they have to offer practical advice. I get that we’re in America and people are about self-interest and reading something directly applicable to their own lives, but then why do they (well some of them) read novels? Or watch sitcoms, or dramas, or go the movies? And how did Jenny Lawson become one of the most famous bloggers ever?

More than anything, I think I’m angry with myself for believing this notion that you have to sell a skill to be read or to matter. A big reason I haven’t been writing is because I didn’t believe anyone wanted to read the real, honest, no fun daily struggles of another privileged middle class American white chick. And maybe they don’t. Ok. But does that mean I just tuck my tail between my legs and hide away like I’m not overflowing with thoughts and feelings that I’d really like to just let out already?

I can’t really dump all the responsibility on “society” or “norms” because if I’m being totally honest, I don’t like displaying the tough emotions like anger, sadness, or fear. I’m ok sitting on them in silence or steeping them in sarcasm.  I suppose I’ve bought into the popular notion that those emotions betray a weakness that is all too human. Sometimes admitting to being that human seems too damn difficult. Not to mention that exposing my humanity means exposing my flawed self to fun feedback from anonymous strangers or worse, my friends.

I’ll talk about the crap feelings if it is to dispense advice, information, or reactions to the myriad world events that evoke those emotions. But when it comes to my own intimate, personal daily struggles, I run like hell from acknowledging them or discussing them. I run to diaries I can lock away, to music, movies, books, denial, and fantasy worlds. I developed this withdrawal coping mechanism in early childhood and I’ve used it to keep others at a distance as far back as I can remember. I had good reasons to do so for a long time. I’m sure there will always be reasons for all of us to self-protect. I mean, the world we’re in just isn’t safe. But it won’t be safe regardless, so I may as well suck it up and spill some truth beans now and then.

The reason I started blogging was because I express myself most authentically and clearly in writing and because, despite my formidable defenses, I want to be known and understood and heard. Writing that out in the open is terrifying because for so long I have wanted the very opposite. At least I thought I did, or thought I was supposed to want that. But not being seen, not telling my truths, and hiding behind the concocted and unconvincing images of normalcy has become exhausting and alienating. I’m tired of believing I need to be quiet about my past, my story, and myself. So while I will remain reticent regarding stories that are not mine to tell, I will speak my truth. Because Oprah said I could, dammit.

That being said, I’ll answer honestly now the question some have asked in the past few months. “How are you?”

I’m adapting to and enjoying my new job and I’m relieved to have stopped moving and unpacking and to have settled into a new home. But winter is difficult for me. My anxiety and depression symptoms worsened and recently, my antidepressants have stopped working. So I’m now coping with antidepressant discontinuation syndrome as I’m weaning off my Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI).

Breaking up with my medication has been rough. I feel like I’m drunk but without the positive side effects of giggling at everything or deciding I love EVERYONE and needing to proclaim it for the entire world to hear (I’m talking to you random cab driver). No, it’s not so bad. I just feel tired, and nauseous, and dizzy, oh and then suddenly sad and then pissed off, all within ten minutes of waking up. So really, maybe it’s like I’m drunk and pregnant all at once but without the fun buzz or the adorable baby. But luckily for me, this ordeal should only last a month or two, not a better part of a year.

I also didn’t do myself any favors with my reading material this winter. I read some amazing and highly recommended books, but also dark and disturbing books that could have waited until spring or summer when my mood is more manageable. I’ll get back into my book review writing again soon, but for now, I’ll just say I recommend the following books if and only if you’re ready for some traumatic truth bombs: Kindred by Octavia Butler, 1984 by George Orwell, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

That last novel brought up some issues for me because it dealt with a child’s misreading of sexual situations and the strong desire to atone even when the course of events has rendered absolution impossible. For now, I’ll just say it stirred up some forgotten feelings about a friend who I didn’t know I didn’t know. My little eyes were not grown and could not see her as she was before she had to go. But now my eyes are swimming in wide open Oh!s.

See what I mean? Reality blows. I’m going to go stick my nose in a happy fantasy book.

 

WTF

I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there. I’ll tell you all about how I became a dupe watching Cersei alight the iron chair.

I read an article a while back regarding the eerie similarities between our current political and environmental climate and the fictional world in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (and the HBO series Game of Thrones). When I read the article, I was entertained by the clever parallels and focused on Martin’s wit in writing a world that so accurately captured the emotions and complexities of the reader’s world today. But since late January, when our very own Cersei was “elected” by a “free democracy” to sit as commander-in-chief, I’ve been feeling less entertained and more like the poor suckers in the scene above, watching in devastating shock as a narcissistic tyrant climbs the stairs to power.

January and February tend to be my roughest months of the year when I tend to lean towards apathy and sadness. This year I think I’m in good company when I say life has been more difficult and complicated. I just want to curl up with the bears in a cave somewhere and sleep until the sun comes out. Survival mode kicks in and I focus on my routines of work, study,  self-care, and sanity-keeping. I spend less time blogging, writing, taking photos, etc. Thus my hiatus from the blogosphere.

Part of my shock and sadness comes from the knowledge that a portion of the country (approximately 26 percent of the eligible voting population) voted for a Cersei figure. I don’t believe there is a simple answer as to why they did and I plan to do my homework in order to understand all sides. It is tempting to point fingers at the poor and dirty children who helped execute Cersei’s plan.But what about the society that created a generation of poor, neglected children so desperate they turned to a figure of influence loudly promising them control, money, and safety?

By considering their perspective, I’m looking to understand, not to discount the perspectives of the remaining majority of the kingdom. In fact, the more perspectives I can consider besides my own, the better I will understand (I hope). But I also want to remember that “kings rise and fall” while standing on the backs of their obedient and dutiful workers. While trying to understand the human emotions and motivations of the game, I want to figure out how we realize our own collective power and take back our fair share.

“Winter is coming,” in a very literal way, as our planet revolts against our neglect. We need to figure out how overcome our differences, validate each others struggles, and work together on our most pressing problems before the ice and snow of the North crashes down to destroy us. One of the only bearable ways to undertake such a serious, scary, and yes, dramatic endeavor, is (for me at least) to find inspiration from a magical fantasy world where the underdogs rise up and free slaves, ride dragons, and unite against their oppressors.

My plan:

  • First do no harm. Act in an environmentally conscious way, support environmental advocate groups and companies, and learn and avoid those that do harm.
  • Take care of myself so I can help take care of others. If I’m going to participate in a resistance, I need to remember not to lose sight of our basic needs like health, financial security, hygiene, food, shelter, etc. I can only help others so much if I neglect my needs.
  • Read other perspectives. Reading fosters empathy which encourages direct and open communication with any so-called “others” including Muslims, LGBTs, members of a different political party, members of a different race, class, professional status, pretty much anyone different than myself. The more I talk to others and learn about their perspectives, the better I’ll be able to work on our problems and organize for solutions.(So far, I’ve read Kindred by Octavia Butler, & Listen Liberal: Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank- I recommend both).
  • Support my local library. During times of uncertainty, the library has always been a safe haven where I can find resources to help me answer any questions. These days it is also a place where I can find information I trust is accurate, where facts are just plain facts. It is also a place where everyone is welcome, where communities can interact and come together, or sit back and witness democracy in action though some try to silence it.
  • Listen. That’s it.
  • Find out who my local senators and congressmen/women are. Contact them when I see a need for change.
  • Read up on the 1%.
  • Read up on the history of propaganda and political rhetoric.
  • Join/support local protests, demonstrations, marches, etc.
  • Volunteer/Donate to Planned Parenthood.
  • Drive less. Bike or walk more.
  • Research reliable news sources and read only those.
  • Limit social media exposure/Balance it with human interaction. On the internet, communication and privacy breaks down, empathy disappears, and I feel more isolated.

So these are my goals so far in response to this weird time. I’m sure I’ll update and revise as I go along. Please share what you are doing or what is helping you during a strange and scary time in US history. Thanks for reading.