31 January 2014

Six Books That Changed My Life

Emily from Live Renewed had a post this week about the six books that have changed her life.

I think that's a very weighty label, isn't it? Don't get me wrong--I've read many books that have impacted me greatly. But to say a book has changed your life is a big deal. Not something that should be casually thrown around.

Still, I think it's important to be open so that important books can change your life. It's one way we can grow and become better people than we were.

For the purposes of this blog, I'll say that I consider a life-changing book one that shifted the way I see the world and relationships in it, and one that I could read more than once.* These are the books that, when I read the last page, I say something along the lines of "Holy shit."

So I've taken some time to think about what six books fall under the "life-changing" category for me. I present them here (in no particular order), with a short explanation of why.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I first read Jane Eyre in eighth grade. It was my first foray into adult classic literature. I don't remember why I chose it, but I read the whole thing in about two days. I let it sit in my room for a few days, then read it again.

The story of an orphaned governess transformed me as a reader. Until I read Jane Eyre, I stayed securely in the reading deemed by the Powers That Be to be appropriate for my age and grade level. Sure, I took on Accelerated Reader challenges excitedly, but this was the first time I read something I considered an "adult" novel. It opened up a new world of reading to me. Because I read it and (sort of) understood it, I realized I didn't have to keep reading R. L. Stine and Bonnie Byrant. I could choose books based on what sounded interesting to me, and ignore whether the books were "for my age" or not. My reading life was never the same after that.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
I read this in ninth grade English. I'd just moved from another state and had about a month of school left until summer vacation, and the class had already started reading it. I remember that my parents had to sign a release form saying I had permission to read it for class. That was new for me.

This was my first experience with an unreliable narrator, which kind of blew my mind at the time. It was very, very strange to me that the person telling the story couldn't be entirely trusted. Until then, I'd always taken narrators at their words. But Holden Caulfield was a very different character. He only gave part of the story. He contradicted himself. I didn't really know what to make of him at first. After that, I was more careful about what I believed when I read stories.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
I'm still in the process of reading this, so I was a little conflicted about including it in this list. But even only part of the way into the book, I can say it's a life-changer for me.

I'm new to atheism after a lifetime of Christianity (in various forms). And even though I know I do not believe in any supreme being/intelligent creator/god, I am far less versed in atheism than others are, and than others are in Christianity. I know what I think and believe, but I'm unable to coherently debate it or offer evidence against the existence of god. Yet. However, Dawkins is not only helping me articulate my thoughts, but is helping me better understand the scientific evidence behind atheism. It's helping me combat the "truths" I've been taught my whole life, and reminding me of why I've taken that step to atheism instead of simply claiming to be "spiritual" or "non-religious." This book really is changing the way I look at the world because I'm better able to see the wonder and beauty and terrible parts of the universe without tainting it by giving credit to a creator.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
You're either a Gatsby person or you're not. I am.

I can't remember the first time I read The Great Gatsby. Probably high school. And I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I could have that first time. But I remember the second time I read it. Because it was the first time a book made me cry. Sure, I'd read books that touched me and made me feel sad, but this was the first time there were actual tears as a I read a book. I cried for Jay and for his father. I've read the book many times since*, and each time it's made me cry. Gatsby has touched me in a way other books haven't, and has grown and changed with me through its many readings. I'm a Gatsby person.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
It seems to me a little cliche that I would add this book, but I do have good reason.

When I was in high school (and college), I struggled with depression and anxiety. At the time, there weren't a lot of people around me going through similar struggles, so I felt very alone. When I read The Bell Jar, I felt a little less alone in what I was going through. I felt that, maybe, others had the same struggles. I know Esther Greenwood and Sylvia Plath are not the best models of recovery, but just knowing that I wasn't alone in what I was feeling was enough for me to be able to push through it. And, more importantly, ask for help when I needed it. In that way, I think Esther's story made me a better person, so it must be included in this list.

The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking by Robert Atkinson
I read this book my senior year in college when I took a directed study course on personal mythmaking with my academic advisor. I really enjoyed the course not only because it was with a man I admire very deeply, but because of this book.

By learning more about life stories and personal mythmaking, I learned the value of people sharing their own stories. Until then, I knew it was important for people to have a voice, but there was a disconnection between my realization of that fact and the application in my life, words, and behavior. After reading this book, I better understood the value of telling people's stories, and people telling their own stories. Everyone deserves a voice. By telling their stories or letting others tell their stories, they're given a voice. Thanks to Atkinson's book, I understand that better now, and want to do what I can to make sure people's voices are protected.

It's a hard thing to decide what books have changed my life. I wasn't sure that I'd be able to come up with six titles. Yes, there are books that have made an impact on me. In fact, most books I read impact me in some way or another. But I wouldn't call them all life-changing. But these six have earned their place.

What books have changed your life?

*Literature rewards rereading.

29 January 2014

I'm still the coffee-stained writer....

I've been the "coffee-stained writer" since the first time I started freelancing full-time, way back in June 2008. I took that name because I adore coffee, and I was working on developing my idea for the coffee house book. It fit well.

Since then, I've kept the name, and the work on the coffee house book, and my love of coffee. Lately, I've probably been drinking about a pot a day. And I make it pretty strong. I don't know exactly how it happens. I even tried making half a pot in the morning, but partway through the day, in the midst of working, I find myself making another pot.

However, since one of my goals this year is to be more health-conscious about what I eat and drink, I decided it would probably be a good idea to reduce the amount of coffee I drink each day (just a bit) and replace some of it with healthier things like water and green tea.

I'm not cutting out coffee completely, mind. That would be madness.

But I will be cutting back some. To help keep me from being tempted to drink too much, I'm going to use a single-cup French press for my coffee in the morning, which I can also use to make loose-leaf tea.

I'll always be the coffee-stained writer.

22 January 2014

Why I am not vegan

I've been thinking a lot about labels lately.

See, I'm in this group on Facebook for Vegans. It's a good place for me to ask questions as I'm learning, share sometimes geeky-esque vegan humor, and connect with people who share my love of cashew "cheese." It's a nice little group, and I'm enjoying getting to know the people in it.

But yesterday one of the people in the group linked to a blog post by the Happy Herbivore called "I'm not vegan anymore." And, really, that's what got me thinking about labels.

I like the Happy Herbivore's take on why the label "vegan" doesn't always fit. When it comes to labels, there will always be people who have rules in their heads about how others can fit into that label, whether it be vegan or something else, like Christian (or atheist, for that matter). And when someone sidesteps those requirements, it gives people the chance to pounce on them, attack them, and kick them out of the cool kids' club.

Here's the thing--when one person (or a few people) make the rules, it's impossible for others to live up to them, really. Everyone's different and everyone is on their* own path. No one can live up to anyone's standards except their own.

Let's look at the label "vegan" by way of an example.

My understanding of vegan has always been someone who does not consume or use animal products or byproducts. No meat, dairy, eggs, fish in the diet, and no leather, wool, etc. in the home. There are people who take that a step further (as I do) and don't use products that cause animals to suffer. For example, I avoid household cleaners and body care products from companies that test on animals. I don't use white sugar because much of it is processed through animal bone char.**

But there are also vegans who say that in order to claim the label vegan for yourself, you can't use honey. Because while bees are insects, the honey is their product and it's like taking milk from cows, etc. There are others who say that if the bees are allowed to live freely without interference (don't make the bees eat stuff they wouldn't normally eat and don't kill them after you collect the honey), it's okay to eat honey, and it has beneficial and healing properties that make it good for us. And you can still be vegan.

For those not in vegan circles, this may sound like a silly argument, but it's a very hot-button issue among those who would (or would not) call themselves vegan. Like, seriously heated. Over honey.

And there are those that some call "vegan extremists" that go nuts over people with pets and say you can't be vegan if you don't adhere to their specific standards for animals as part of your family. (PETA calls them "animal companions.")

I'm just not into all that. To me, veganism is about advocating for animal equality. It's about minimizing your negative impact on the animal world by what you eat, what products you use, and how you live. To my knowledge it's virtually impossible to live 100% vegan. Unless you, like, live in a cave and eat moss and go naked. Or something.

So to me, it's not so much about being vegan as it is living more compassionately in my life, even if it's just a little at a time. Last year I quit eating meat. This year, I've cut all animal products and by-products from my diet. (But I still consume honey.) The next step is to be more aware of what products I use in my home so that I don't support companies that test on animals. I am what is referred to colloquially as "vegan." But if being vegan means people think of me as an angry, hungry person who is more concerned with what so-called vegans are doing than helping the animals, I prefer to be someone who tries to live compassionately, thanks.

*I would just like to state, for the record, that I am advocating for the singular "they" in this post. I'm a rebel that way.


14 January 2014

The no-TV life

We still don't have a TV at the house, and though the munchkins do watch shows on my tablet, I've adopted CCB's rule that the kids only have screen time on non-school days.

I don't know what Monty's screen time rules are, but Puck and Tink have adjusted easily to the rules here. They rarely ask to watch anything during the week, and this past weekend, there were times I asked if they wanted to watch a movie or show, and they both said no. They have plenty of toys and activities, and are happy to play instead of sitting in front of the tablet watching TV.

I've had a few people tell me they don't know how I don't have a TV, or that I should get one for family movie nights, at least. But as little as we watch shows, I don't really see the point. I'm happy to use my tablet for the munchkins and when I put on Doctor Who episodes as background noise for working.

Besides, if the munchkins are content to be without TV, I'm certainly not going to risk changing it by bringing a TV into the house.

Do you have a TV? How does it impact your life?

13 January 2014

The new day planner

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I'd been using a large, spiral-bound weekly/monthly calendar as my day planner. I wrote everything in it, and when I wrote out my task lists, I'd paperclip them to the calendar so I wouldn't lose them (which I almost always did). It worked for me. Sort of.

I've tried to go paperless with my calendars. I've tried using the calendar in my phone, as well as on my computer (both the native Microsoft one, as well as trying the Google calendar). I'm the type of person who really just has to have a paper calendar. I have to physically write things down on it or I don't remember them. So every year I buy a new weekly/monthly calendar like the one I was using last year.

But this year I decided to try something a little different. Instead of replacing my calendar with another one just like it, I got a binder-style refillable day planner. It still has the monthly/weekly pages, but there's more room to write my task lists each day, and since it's a binder, I can add note pages when I need to, and reuse the binder next year instead of buying new each year. Not only is it more cost-effective, but I've been able to transform it from a simple calendar to a portable office. It has room for everything I need all in one place, and still fits in my bag.

When I was a kid, my mom had a job as a real estate agent, and I remember she had a day planner, too. She called it her "life," and carried it with her everywhere. She wrote everything in it and kept it with her. I remember that it could barely close because of the papers and receipts stuck into it. As a kid, that day planner was representative of my mom's role in the family, and to me, meant adulthood. I thought that when I was a mom, I'd have a day planner, too, and carry it around everywhere and call it my life.

Now that I have one myself, I know it's not a symbol of adulthood, but still, when I stick receipts into the front pocket or jot notes to myself, I can't help but remember my mom's day planner. Sometimes she'd leave it in the car and send a kid out to get it, and at the beginning of the school year she'd sit down with the school calendar and write out the important dates on her calendar pages.

It's truly just a day planner. I know that. But somehow I feel a little more adult whenever I scribble my own notes in the day planner.

10 January 2014

Even much-needed lulls can be a little unnerving

I've been in a weird place the past week or so. December was very chaotic for me (two trips to Illinois in one month was a bit much), and after the added excitement of a big family Christmas, coming home to the quiet of my home in Florida was a little jarring. It was suddenly quiet and empty.

Don't get me wrong--I'm very glad for the chance to sort of recharge after our trip to Illinois. I like this time of year because it's quiet and reflective and not busy until Easter approaches. So I like that aside from school drop-off and pick-up, there's nowhere we have to be and nothing we have to do. We spend quiet evenings with games and toys and books instead of in and out of the car.

But I'm still settling in after December. I still feel like there's more I should be doing or something I'm forgetting. This week I've been checking my calendar far too frequently because I'm just positive I've forgotten some appointment or something.

I haven't. This really is just a quiet week at home.

It takes time to get back into a routine after a holiday, and this time it's taking me a bit longer than I expected. So I think I'll make another cup of tea and curl up with a book on the sofa before Puck goes to school this afternoon.

05 January 2014

Silence is complicity

My father is an active member of an IFB church in northern Illinois. He goes to Sunday school and Sunday morning services, leads the youth group, and even went on a missions trip to South Dakota this past summer. Active member.

When I left the IFB church but was still Christian, I made the decision to still attend services at my dad's church when I was visiting him over a weekend. I disagreed with the teachings of the denomination, but was still Christian and found value in the services. In addition, I didn't want to start conflict with my dad (or extended family) by drawing that line in the sand and not attending services.

Even after I came out as gay, I attended IFB services when I was at my dad's house. I know what my dad's preacher thinks about homosexuality, but out of respect for my father, I attended services.

When I believed in a god, I could set aside the IFB position on certain issues (homosexuality, gender equality, etc.) and apply my own interpretations to the crux of the message for my own life. I could ignore what made me angry for my dad.

Now, as an atheist, I won't do it anymore.

I still have respect for my father because he is my father. However, I think that, in this case, silence is complicity. Regardless of what I'm thinking while sitting in a pew at that church, or how I really feel, I believe that by even attending services, I'm sending the message that I condone the teachings, even if I don't agree with them.

One thing I learned many, many years ago in Sunday school that has stuck with me is that "your walk talks louder than your talk talks."

I can say I'm an atheist and an advocate for equal rights, but I believe that the action of attending services at a church that goes directly against what I say I stand for is more powerful. How can I claim to be an advocate for equal rights and support (through attendance) a church that is known for preaching inequality?

In Christianity, people are taught that your faith comes before all else, and that you should never be afraid to stand up for your beliefs regardless of what other people around you say or think or believe. Don't bow to peer pressure and stand for what you know to be right.

Well, as an atheist and supporter of universal equality, I believe the same thing. I will stand for what I believe in regardless of what the people around me--including family--believe or say or do. I won't pretend that I believe in a god or that I support IFB teachings even if I have family members who would disown me over it. And by not standing up against it, I am telling people--including family--that I think what they believe is okay or fine or even good. I can't do that.

For far too long, I let my fear of making waves keep me from taking a stand for things I know to be right. I've made myself miserable and, in some cases, sick because of it.

Maybe it's because my eyes have been truly opened to religion (and Christianity in particular), but I just can't bring myself to go into that church anymore.* I can't pretend that what the preacher proclaims as big-T-truth is acceptable, especially when there is so, so much hypocrisy in that particular brand of Christianity.

I don't know what will happen when/if my father finds out I'm an atheist. He could disown me. (Part of me expected that to happen when I came out to him.) After all, in his world, atheism is defiance to God and the worst of offenses. Sins can be forgiven, but atheism is a permanent separation from God.

But, just as my dad would be willing to let go of friends and family in order to stand for his beliefs, I am willing to let go of friends and family in order to stand for what I believe. I can keep my relationship with my dad separate from any relationship with a higher power. I hope he can, too.

*Although, my sister and I discussed it, and we decided that if I do ever go back to my dad's church for a service, I should wear a men's suit and rainbow tie.

03 January 2014

Moisturize me....!

I have a skin condition that primarily affects my face. Because of this condition, there is a redness to my face, and the skin is very sensitive.

Lately, it's been incredibly difficult for me to find a facial moisturizer that I can use. Most of the kinds I've tried have given me a reaction (painful, in some cases) and aggravated the condition.

Truly, I'd love to be able to avoid the struggle completely, but it's winter, and even in Florida, my skin gets dry. I have to put some kind of moisturizer on it.

I'm trying to stay optimistic.  I have a ear friend who has psoriasis quite badly, which can flare up so badly she can't do anything. My skin condition is not that bad, and I'm glad for that.

Still, this painful trial and error is getting old. I'll be glad when I can find a facial moisturizer that actually works well for my skin.

02 January 2014

Car shopping

I'm in the market for a new vehicle. The car I'm driving now I acquired as the result of my marriage to Monty, and it's time for a new one. This one is about ten years old, and our little family could use more space.

I've narrowed my choices down to two. Both are small SUVs, and though I'm not taking any out of contention quite yet, I am leaning toward one in particular. It offers what I need and want in a family car, and is within my price range.

I'm excited about getting a new car. Not only for the benefits (better gas mileage, more room, etc.), but because I'm ready for a change. I want a new car as much as I need one. Whatever car I choose will be my car, and will be exactly what I want, no compromises.

I just have to be a little patient until I make my final decision and bring it home.

01 January 2014

What will 2014 be for me?

The lovely, talented, funny and wonderful Carmen over at Mom to the Screaming Masses posted this yesterday looking toward 2014, and I'm totally stealing it and doing it myself. I'm all about 2014 (it's going to be my year), so this is perfect for me to start the year out with. I encourage you to think about your answers to these prompts yourself as you start this new and exciting year.


A bad habit I'm going to break: I'm terrible about drinking soda (particularly Dr. Pepper). I know I drink too much soda and it's just empty calories, but as hard as I've tried, I just can't break the soda habit. So this year I'm going to make a concerted effort to stop drinking so much soda. It's part of the changes I'm trying really hard to make to be a healthier me.

A new skill I'd like to learn: This year, I'm going to start sewing. I've made the commitment to making pajamas for the cousins for Christmas next year, and I need lots of practice. Along with that, I'd love to be able to quilt, as well. But we'll start with simple sewing first.

A person I hope to be more like: There are a lot of people I admire in my life. There are different people I look up to for different reasons, and different people who have traits that I want to see more of in myself. However, I'm going to be a little selfish in this answer. This year, I hope to be more like myself. I'm finally living my authentic self and being true to who I am, and in 2014, I want to continue to be true to who I am and be authentically me.

A good deed I'm going to do: For me, it works much better to do little things as I can rather than committing to bigger ways of helping/volunteering. My schedule can be a bit crazy, and I don't want to commit to a program and then not be able to follow through. So instead, this year, I want to keep my eyes open to help others whenever and wherever I can, knowing that even "little" things can have a big impact on people's lives.

A place I'd like to visit: I'm back in Florida, so I'm looking forward to lots of beach time, but one particular place I'd like to go is the Florida Keys. The Hemingway House is in Key West, and I'd love to go and see it, and do a little exploring that far south.

A book I'd like to read: Oh, my goodness.... This is a hard one. There are so many books I want to read that this kind of seems like an unfair question. But if I had to pick one particular book that is a must-read on my list this year, I think it would have to be The Norton Book of Women's Lives. I picked it up at Barnes & Noble some time ago and haven't read it yet. It's an anthology, and I'm hoping will be a good volume to take with me on my next trip to Illinois (I'll definitely need something for the airport!).

A letter I'm going to write: Like most people, particularly of my generation, I'm terrible at writing letters. Sometimes I'm even terrible about replying to emails for friends and family. But I think writing letters can be a good way to strengthen a connection with someone, so committing to writing a letter this year is a good challenge. So I'm planning to write a letter to a friend I've lost touch with in order to try and reconnect.

A new food I'd like to try: I've committed to a vegan lifestyle, and though I had a few slips in 2013 (it's a process), there are no animal products or by-products in my kitchen, and I'm feeling confident about my plant-based, compassionate diet in 2014. To help keep myself committed to this lifestyle, I want to make sure there's lots of variety in my diet, so trying new foods is going to be common this year. One particular food I'm looking forward to trying is kale. I've never had it, and heard lots of great things about it (including kale chips, which sound yummy to me). So it's definitely on my list this year.

I'm going to do better at: (This is another steal from Carmen, but it's true for me, so I'm going with it.) listening to my body and taking care of myself. 2013 was a difficult year for me for a lot of reasons. And I know that the best way I can continue to take care of the munchkins is to take care of myself, too. So I'm going to do what I need to do in order to be healthy and happy, so that the munchkins can continue to be happy and healthy.

If you decide to fill this out, please let Carmen know--I know she'd be happy to read what you're going to do in 2014!

Have a wonderful year!