Finding Community.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Since Alice was born, we have lived in three different communities, each one distinctly different from the rest. She was born in New York City, and we lived in Riverdale, a heavily Jewish but still diverse section of the Bronx, along the Hudson River. When I first moved to Riverdale, I was dating my future husband and we had no children. My sister lived in the neighborhood and she was pretty much my only friend, since Riverdale is a family 'hood thanks to the good schools and affordable housing prices. When Alice was six months old,  I finally ventured out to a library story time and it was there that I made my first "mom friend." Alana was a great mom friend to have because she was a go-getter that made things happen. Through her, I joined a playgroup that she started in her playroom (It's where I met Justine of Full Belly Sisters and Caitlin of The Joy of Caitlin!) and suddenly, I had a whole group of moms with kids the same age as Alice, a whole group of women accompanying each other on this journey of early motherhood. Besides these awesome women, I also had great neighbors (Hi, Wittes, Lapins and Rocco!) As a first-time mom who suddenly found herself spending long stretches of time with no other adult in site, this group of mothers and neighbors was a lifesaver.

The Riverdale Gang

When I was seven months pregnant with Stella, and Alice was a few months shy of her second birthday, we up and moved to Greenfield, Mass. This was a big change for me. Greenfield is a small city but it is nothing like the Bronx. Thought Henry had friends there, none of them had kids. It was by chance that I fell in with a group of parents, thanks to a chance run-in with Henry's college acquaintance when we were out for Sunday brunch. Again, I allowed myself to be swept up into a group of amazing parents who welcomed me with open arms and library time schedules. It was my first time living in a place with no family nearby and being taken in by these amazing folks was incredible, especially when Stella was born. Though I barely knew these families, they were delivering food and company to us for weeks after Stella's birth. It was spiritually uplifting and to this day, the memory makes me well up in appreciation.

Happy Valley Friends

Alas, we found ourselves back in the Bronx a year after we left. My friends were still around and I made some new ones, before we up and left again for Connecticut. Here, I have found my community  at the preschool, aptly named Community Nursery School. Again, my sister lives here and she was my only friend in the beginning. Living in this semi-rural area means that it can be easy to feel isolated. I look forward to preschool drop-off, where I can count on having at least one good conversation and maybe a cup of coffee with the other moms before we rush off to get errands done before pick-up. Moving here was another big change for us, and I think making friends as adults is hard--having kids makes it much easier but there's no guarantee of a connection.
These three parenting communities were different in personality and style but they have the most important thing in common--we could count on each other for help, to look out for each other's kids and to support each other in this season of early parenting. It may be a cliche but it still holds true:
It takes a village. 
In Marie-Helene Bertino's novel, 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, the protagonist, 9-year-old Madeleine is shored up by the people in her life after the death of her mother and her father's subsequent depression. This small community of people proves to be her saving grace.

This post was inspired by 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, a novel about hope, love, and music in the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia. Join From Left to Write on August 28 as we discuss 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Marie-Helen Bertino is on Twitter and Facebook. Give her a shout-out!

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I really took my time with this book. The story is so rich, with so many layers and I found myself re-reading sections of the book as the characters began to come together in a sad and surprising vortex towards the end of the book. The author begins the story with several separate strands and weaves them together into a story in which the characters touch each others' lives without realizing it. Beyond the characters, I was entranced by the setting itself. Anthony Marra paints a world so dark, gloomy and depressing and yet manages to create little pockets of light that shine through briefly, a metaphor for the redemption of humanity in the midst of the extreme depravity that surfaces in a war-torn society. I will hold this book with me for a long time, and be haunted by the images and the characters. 

You can read an excerpt from the book below! 

{I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books, in exchange for my honest review. This post contains affiliate links.}

Hello Redding! (A Kickstarter Campaign)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I am the advertising sales manager for Hello Redding, a great, local e-zine published by a long-time resident of Redding, CT in Fairfield County.  Check out our campaign to help our publication grow, and support local press. If you have a home-based business with a national or regional scope, check out the advertising special offered in one of our pledge levels!

The Original is Always Better.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I'm surprisingly old-fashioned and big on tradition. The recent trend of remaking classic movies is driving me bananas, quite frankly. I'm disappointed in Hollywood's lack of creativity! I grew up with the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Needless to say, I only needed to watch a few minutes of the newer Johnny Depp version to know that it just wouldn't do. Too dark, too creepy, too WIERD. My kids, age 6 and 4, felt the same and vastly prefer Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.  They love the movie, period, with or without the comparison to the newer one. I was pretty psyched when I had the opportunity to get a copy of the book, because...guess what? I've never read it! I wasn't into Roald Dahl much as a kid and as an adult, I was busy reading other books. Alice, who just turned six, was excited to read it with me. She is just getting into chapter books and while she can read some chapter books independently (Henry and Mudge books are a popular series in our house right now), she likes being read to. It's been exciting to move beyond picture books to novels that require her to listen and create imagery in her own mind. As an English teacher, this is the part of parenting I have long looked forward to--sharing novels with my kids and nurturing a love of reading independently.

And though From Left to Write members don't write book reviews, I am making an exception for this one and turning this post over to Alice, who says the book is better than the movie and  wrote:

"I recommend this book because it's the best chapter book ever. My favorite part is when they go in the Chocolate Room. All Mr. Willy Wonka's dreams were in that room. I like the fact that you can everything in that room! I like that the trees are made of lollipops and the grass is minty sugar.
Anyone that likes candy and likes to read should read this book."
Alice, Age 6

This post was inspired by the classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. To celebrate, Penguin Young Readers Group, in partnership with Dylan’s Candy Bar, the world-famous candy emporium, and First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides books for children from low-income families, is launching a year-long international celebration.

Head over to From Left to Write to learn how you and your child can have a chance to win the Golden Ticket Sweepstakes where the grand prize is a magical trip to New York City plus much more! For every entry submitted, Penguin Young Readers Group will make a donation to First Book. Then, join From Left to Write on July 24 as we discuss Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As a book club member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes. 

{This post contains affiliate links.}

Keeping It Real: Relapse

Friday, July 11, 2014

Relapse. That's what they call it when you have an addiction, right? But I admit that it kind of makes me cringe to call it an addiction. Sugar addiction. It sounds faddish, new age-y, just another way to sell diet books and diet plans. 

In fact, sugar meets all the criteria for an addictive substance: 
• It stimulates release of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, in a manner similar to alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs of abuse.
• People eat it compulsively, despite negative consequences and the intention to stop.
• With continued use, people develop a tolerance to its effects.
• Heavy sugar consumers have trouble functioning without it.
• When consumption ceases, withdrawal symptoms occur.                                                         Source:
 There are cookies and other junky snacks in my house right now. A friend brought them over the kids yesterday, for our playdate. I thought that I could have one delicious mini chocolate chip cookie but I was really, really wrong. Not only could I not have just one, I went on a small rampage and ate some other crap, too. I could feel myself being subsumed by the craving. It's unreal. I don't know how to describe it but those of you with addictions understand what I mean.
After my first post about my problem, my sister sent me a Kindle copy of Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears by Pema Chödrön. I'm still reading the book but she advises "learning to be with the itch."
Pausing is very helpful in this process. It creates a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being awake and present. You just stop for a few seconds, breathe deep, and move on. You don't want to make it into a project. Chögyam Trungpa used to refer to this as the gap. You pause and allow there to be a gap in whatever you're doing. 

I did pause and the first time, it worked. But after a week of two kids who miss their friends and being in school, who were at each other's throats and being extremely physical with each other, my nerves were shot and frazzled, pausing did not work. I failed to identify the feeling that was driving my compulsion.

I reminded myself that I was supposed to care, then came that small, niggling thought that always creeps in when I do that:

What if I don't care?
But I do care, don't I? I mean, I'm supposed to care. I've convinced myself that I do. And I think I really do care but caring is not enough, apparently. So how do I move beyond caring to acting with intent? I need resources to answer that question. If you have any to offer, please leave it in the comments!

{Affiliate links within.} 

This is The Story of a Happy Marriage (or How a Book Club Was Born).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Way back in May, which seems like forever ago now, back when the kids were still in school, back when days were warm and nights were cool, you get my drift... Way back in May, I was in the library with my friend Rachel and our kids. I spied a book on a bookcase across the room and decided I wanted to read it. I'd heard of the book before, and I was definitely judging this book by its cover, knowing nothing about it. I decided on the spot to have a summer book club for us moms who were staring down a long summer with the kids in town. That evening, I sent out an email to a group of friends who I thought would be down with a book club and who would be in town most of the summer.  Every single lady said yes, god bless 'em. This book club would be on!

The book: This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. I had no idea what the book was about but I trusted my instincts. It turned out to be a collection of personal essays, wonderful personal essays, maybe the best I've ever read. Before the book was even done, I knew I'd re-read it. I did have some pangs of worry though because these personal essays were also essays about writing, and I wasn't sure if the ladies in my group would be down that. I guess I had thought the essays would be about marriage and parenting and being a woman, and all that good stuff. First of all, Patchett has no children so there are no essays about motherhood, though she does write about her consternation towards people who assume that she is using her dog as sublimation for a baby.
Being a childless woman of childbearing age, I am a walking target for people's concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador retriever and says. "Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there's a guy who wants to have a son." A dog, after all, is man's best friend, a comrade, a pal. But give a dog to a woman and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn't want children, they will nod understandingly and say, "You just wait." For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor when calling to her do I say, "Come to Mama." 
Her derision and annoyance come through so well, and with humor, too. I fell in love with this voice throughout the book. Each and every essay was a pleasure to read, and as someone who is still trying to master the art of the personal essay, the lessons were bountiful. In fact, if I were still teaching, these essays would form the cornerstone of a curriculum on the personal essay (along with the other master,  Philip Lopate, of course.)
Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama We must get all of them out of system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath. 
Besides the wonderful, writerly advice, Patchett's essays give us an glimpse into worlds we don't see, sometimes risking an unpopular viewpoint. In The Wall, Patchett writes about trying out for the Los Angeles Police Academy, in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. Patchett's father was a captain in the LAPD, and retired before the riots. Her experience with the officers of the LAPD stands in stark contrast with the media portrayal of the force following the beating of Rodney King, his trial and the riots. In this essay, she strives to put a face on an oft-villanized group. While she does not attempt to excuse or apologize for the officers that beat Rodney King, she does want to reclaim her hard-working father's honor and who can fault a daughter for that?
I am proud of my father. I am proud of his life's work. For a brief time I saw how difficult it would be to be a police officer in the city of Los Angeles, how easy it would be to fail at the job, as so many have failed. My father succeeded. He served his city well. I wanted to make a note of that.  
One of my favorite essays in the collection comes at the end. The Mercies is a story about the nuns that taught Patchett as a child. First of all, as a non-Catholic, I was fascinated by this personal peek into the lives of nuns! I was also thoroughly heartwarmed by the evolving nature of the lifelong relationship between teacher and student.  I am still close with a few of my own students (a student I had as a freshman just finished grad school! Holy heck...) and I felt the story deeply, knowingly, appreciatively. And it is in this story that Patchett reveals a surprising secret that she only alludes to in an earlier essay. But I'm not going to tell you. Sorry! No spoilers here...

I also want to add that I finished this book in under a week. That's rare these days, and I attribute that to the fact that I read it while on a week-long camping trip in Maine. With no house to clean or laundry to fold, and no social media distraction, there was not much left to do but read, which was my intention, of course, when I decided to leave my phone, dead, in the car for most of the week.  (Let's not discuss the fact that I really should just try harder to resist the temptation, regardless of the state of my phone or the location of my various devices. Thanks.)

Out of respect for Patchett, I am not including my Amazon affiliate link here. I bought my copy at my local independent bookseller and I urge you to do the same. Full disclosure: Though I have an Amazon affiliate account, I do usually buy my books at my local bookstore. Now you know my dirty secret. 

First To Read: The Most Dangerous Book

Thursday, July 3, 2014

I must confess that I've never read Ulysses. A Portrait of the Artist, definitely, though the memory of that book is long gone, and I should probably re-read it now that I'm well out of the overwhelming haze of college years. But I do love books about books! They are the best possible combination of research, history ands storytelling. The Most Dangerous Book, by Kevin Birmingham, has this combination down pat.  There are so many fascinating story lines in this book-- Joyce's writing process, the history of censorship in America and Europe, the rise of the radical left, Joyce's physical ailments, the story of Sylvia Beach, the contents of Ulysses itself. It is very easy for a book about a book to be dry and boring, just straight reporting but this book goes beyond research to tell a story. Of course, the danger for the reader is remembering the storyteller, having not been present, will take some creative license, and is, after all, telling a story. It's like ethnography, but without the credibility. You just have to trust that the writer is staying close to the spirit of the true story, based on primary and secondary documents. When the story is well-told, it is easy to believe the writer was there, and is sharing a first-hand account of the events that unfolded. Kevin Birmingham has convinced this reader! I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and thought it was very well-paced, despite the enormous amount of information and detail Birmingham has given his readers. Never have I understood so clearly the context within which a book exists-- sometimes a book is never just a book, and the history of Ulysses is a history of the death of the Victorian age and the birth of a radical awakening, both in America and Europe.

{This post contains affiliate links.}


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