A Well-Needed Sad Day

Yesterday I took a sad day. I didn’t have a fever or a stomach ache. Instead, I was engulfed in heavyheartedness. The day was devoted to Gilmore Girls and other mindless television. I ate chocolate. I made pasta. I pulled out an adult coloring book and filled in fairies’ wings with different shades of Crayola pencils. I took an extra-long nap. I cuddled with Finn, our big furry cat. I sat with my sadness. I wallowed.

Last week we made the difficult decision to let our other cat Zooey go. We both were with her at the end, petting her soft fur and whispering into her ear. It was heartbreaking. The next morning I cleaned with a crazed mania, trying to rid the house of evidence of her illness.  I spent the next week in a daze, traveling to my hometown for a quick overnight to help my mother-in-law, and then a few days later up to Chicago for a visit with my youngest son. I didn’t have time to really acknowledge the loss of this cat, the void she was leaving in our home.

When I walked in the door on Tuesday afternoon, Finn greeted me with pitiful meows. “Where have you been? Where’s that other one? I need you. Pay attention to me. I can’t believe you left me. Don’t ever leave again.” I know. I know. I’m personifying, yet that’s what it sounded like. Poor kitty. Then, suddenly, I was knocked off my ass with the ghost of Zooey, and deep despair finally overtook me. I plopped on the couch, and didn’t leave it for almost a day and a half, except of course for bathroom breaks, snacks, and a quick shower. With my husband away on a business trip, silence echoed throughout the house. I allowed myself grieve.

Today I am stronger because of my sad day. I will welcome joy back into my heart. These furry housemates, as a friend of mine calls them, teach us much, but the hardest lesson is learning how to live with the sorrow of letting go. My heart will probably always have a small fissure in it, left by the black cat with the bitchy meow. Our Zooey.

 The day after we said our goodbyes to Zooey, my husband texted me to ask how I was doing. My reply was, “Sad.” I then asked how he was doing. He replied, “surprisingly affected.” I texted back, “Honey, that’s your heart.
The day after we said our goodbyes to Zooey, my husband texted me to ask how I was doing. My reply was, “Sad.” I then asked how he was doing. He replied, “surprisingly affected.” I texted back, “Honey, that’s your heart.”

Clinging to Joy

“For happiness one needs security, but joy can spring like a flower even from the cliffs of despair.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

As I sit at my kitchen table, the rain blows against the windows. The wind catches the porch furniture as the metal chairs clatter on the wood. Thunderstorms on a Monday morning can be despairingly gloomy, yet I glimpse spring scratching to appear. The end of February and the beginning of March in the Midwest are fickle times. Snowflakes juxtaposition themselves against 70 degree days. One doesn’t know whether to grab gloves or sunscreen when heading out the door. These days, though, teach me patience, because I know warm days are coming. Nothing will block the bursting of pastel flowering trees that scatter the roads and sidewalks. Spring is a force that will not be stopped. It comes, despite an errant blizzard or a late March ice storm. It will come.

Nature gives us life lessons. It is easy to complain about cold, wet days. We grumble. We growl. But joy perches gracefully within reach. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see.” If we choose to see misery, that is what will be dumped in our laps. Even in the deepest of pain, we can choose to see sparks of joy. It may be the cat warming himself on the sunlit floor or a favorite song popping up on the radio or knowing spring will be here soon.

Sparks of joy are everywhere. A pile of to-be-read books on the kitchen table. The scraping sound of the wreath against the front door. A pot of yellow daises. A morning text from my husband. The cooing of doves nesting in our eves. These are what I choose to see this morning.

I acknowledge the world is a dark and dangerous place. Slain children fill my nightmares. Flags at half mast prick my tender heart. A confused and insecure man tweets vile messages as Rome burns. We are precariously teetering on those cliffs of despair. But…but I also hear fierce and articulate teenagers fight the norms. I feel mothers and fathers mobilizing to protect their children. I see hope. I spy joy, even as the mourning continues.

Because joy is not an empty promise made by slick sideshow preachers or slimy politicians. It is here, for deep within our anger and grief lies joy and love.

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” – Joseph Campbell

 We must be warriors. We must be warriors for love. We must be warriors for joy.
We must be warriors. We must be warriors for love. We must be warriors for joy.

My Pens, Our Children, My Grief, Our Grief

Back when I was teaching I graded papers with Paper Mate flair pens. I would buy packages of these thin multicolor markers at Target and stockpile them in my desk. I was drawn to specific colors, especially purple. Purple was regal. It was power. It was respect. Every time I used my purple flair pen, I hoped my almost indecipherable scratchings would be noticed, understood, and remembered. These markings were how I often “spoke” to my students. It was my ancient wisdom delivered through side remarks and proofreading edits. I rarely used red because research stated that red was thought to elicit negative emotions from students. Red is an intense color. It signifies love, fire, and blood. So I tucked the red pens back in the drawers and instead used less impassioned colors to remark on essays, homework, and speech critiques.

After I retired and began journaling, I gave up the flair pens. I didn’t like the way they flowed over the pages and often bled to the other side. After experimenting with various brands, I found Paper Mate Ink Joy gel pens. I am still drawn to purple and pink, and usually leave the red in my desk.

On Wednesday in honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to pull out the red pen for my daily scratchings. I admit it felt odd to write in red, this pen color I had cast aside for years, but I scribbled three pages of ideas for possible blog posts. Bright red words on crisp white pages. I then tucked my notebook away and got ready for a luncheon I was hosting for a group of women I’ve grown to love.

Later that afternoon a news alert came over my phone. My heart lurched. I turned on the television to images of police surrounding a school, of terrified students running from the building with their hands over their heads, of parents pacing the sidewalks with cell phones in hands, of first responders working on victims. I stopped breathing. News trickled out. Injuries, then fatalities. My mind raced through the familiar halls of this school, imagining the terror. Even though I had never stepped foot in this building, I knew it. I saw bulletin boards, textbooks, and desks. And then my mind went to cowering kids, frantically texting their parents. I caught a glimpse of teachers fiercely protecting their students, yet thinking of their own families. But mostly it saw blood. Bright red blood splashed against artwork and lockers and fallen book bags.

I am sad. I am angry. I am grieving. 

During my last few years of teaching I participated in code red drills, and every single one filled me with anxiety and dread. After one particular drill the assistant principal came to each room informing us of our errors. When he came to mine he told me I was “dead.” I still remember the sick feeling as he said this to me. I was dead. No, I couldn’t be dead. Not in this “safe” classroom of mine where I spent every day teaching Romeo and Juliet or listening to awkward speeches or working on yearbook pages. No. No. No. 

Code red. There’s that color again. Red. Our school colors were red and white. Red and white. My breath is ragged. My heart is cracked. Red and white.

Even though I no longer walk the halls, I am still there. I want to protect those kids from everything that hurts them. I want to swoop in and whisper, “Everything is going to be okay.”

We are the grownups. We need to work together to protect our kids. Yes, it is a gun problem. Yes, it is a mental health issue. Yes, it is a parenting issue. Yes, it is a political issue. Yes, it is a money issue. Yes, it is a societal breakdown issue. Yes, it is an isolationist issue. Yes, it is OUR issue. We need to own it, and come up with realistic, non-partisan ways to solve it. For OUR kids.

I am a retired teacher. I am a mother. I am a grandmother. I am the mother of a Navy veteran and a police officer. I am the step-mother of a teacher. I am the sister of a principal of an elementary school. I am friends with teachers. I am a liberal who loves this country. I am friends with conservatives who love this country. I am a non-gun owner. I am friends with gun owners. I am a writer of love, of heartache, of peace, of struggle, of simple joys and complicated pain. 

Part of me wants to use a red pen every day until we can come together to work on what is breaking us apart, yet I will leave it in the drawer. I can’t bring myself to put the red pen to the crisp white paper. It’s too painful, for I’m still grieving. 

But first a little about February

I don’t know about you, but I welcome February. January is sad and dark and loaded with slimy germs. I coughed and hacked my way through every depressing day while the cold medicine made me dizzyingly disoriented. Now that I have convalesced, today right before I opened my eyes, I said a quiet, grateful prayer for this new month.

February. A month of cinnamon red hearts and wild Mardi Gras celebrations and the solemn first days of Lent. We honor past presidents. Football gets its own special Sunday. We await what the groundhog will see. Every four years an extra day is tacked onto the month. But why? What is the history of the shortest month of the year? It involves Romans, superstitions, and some math, so bear with me here.

Our modern calendar dates back to the ancient Romans. Romulus, the first king of Rome, devised a ten month lunar calendar which began in March on the new moon before the spring equinox, and ended in December. But what about those winter months, you ask? Since it was mostly an agrarian society, the harvest was over and most Romans were just trying to stay alive during those cold days. 

The second king Numa Pompilius decided the calendar needed some tweaking, so he added two months and synced it with the actual lunar year, which is approximately 354 days. The new months of January and February had 28 days each, but even numbers were considered bad luck to the Romans. Numa added one day to January, but no one really knows why he left February with 28. Some say it was because February was host to many festivals that honored and purified the dead, so why not just leave it unlucky. Sounds like a good story.

This 355 day calendar did not stay in sync with the seasons, so every couple of years an extra day was added to February, but it was placed after the 23rd instead of the 28th. Go figure. Politicians added or deleted these days according to their whims, so many Romans still didn’t know what day it was. Confusing.

In 45 BC, Julius Caesar revamped the calendar and aligned it with the sun instead of the moon. Ten days were added, with an extra day to February every four years. Now the calendar was closer to cycle of the sun and was 365.25 days. 

That’s it. The calendar has been revised over the years to accommodate Christian holidays and seasons, but it still closely resembles the Roman model. February, that short month of purification, gives us pause. We send Valentines. We cuddle. We drunkenly stagger throughout raucous Mardi Gras parades. We spread ashes. 

We anxiously await spring.

“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.” – William Cullen Bryant

(And because I am always an English teacher…)

Hogelback. Jonathan. “Why Are There Only 28 Days in February?” britannica.com. 2018.

McAfee, Melonyce. “28 Days?” slate.com. 27 Feb. 2007.

Reilly, Lucas. “Why Are There Only 28 Days in February?” mentalfloss.com 1 Feb. 2017.

“Why Does February Only Have 28 Days?” PBS Digital Studios. https://youtu.be/AgKaHTh-_Gs  23 Feb. 2015.





Releasing Expectations: Letting Go

 Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

Is it possible to let go of expectations that bring us pain and disappointment? How do we navigate the world when we release these barriers and trust in what is? Can we stop ourselves from believing in preconceived fantasies such as the “perfect” life? What are the steps we can take that give us peace instead of heartache?

Wayne Dyer said, “Peace is retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” We can make all kinds of elaborate plans, write pages of lists, and set lofty goals, yet life inevitably gets in the way. Accidents. Divorce. Job loss. Illness. Death. All are roadblocks that force us to scream, “Hey, this isn’t what I expected out of my life, damnit!” So we recalibrate, yet, if we continue to believe in false expectations, depression will follow.

I know my own life has been a series of reboots. I never expected to divorce, move back to my hometown, remarry, lose my father to Alzheimer’s, retire early, or move to another state in my late 50’s, but I am learning to detach from what I thought my life would be like. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s damn hard. I’ve had to let go of the fairytales, and to be perfectly honest, it sometimes just pisses me off. I get angry. I’m sad. I find myself crying, “I want what they have,” but then I take a breath. No one’s life is perfect. Everyone I know fights battles. So…I am on a daily quest to let go of my own unrealistic expectations. How do I go about it?

  1. Be honest. What is my truth? What is my motivation? Do I want something from others or do I just want love?
  2. Don’t take things too personally. Laugh. Let others just be.
  3. Accept frailty in others. No one, and I mean, no one is perfect. Thank God. Embrace the imperfection in others and in myself.
  4. Come to every situation with an empty cup. An empty cup releases expectations.
  5. Look at the world through a child’s eye. If it is new, there are no expectations.
  6. Be realistic and let go of comparisons. What I have is mine, so therefore it is unique. If struggling, remember # 3.
  7. Detach. Detach from fear. Detach from ego. Detach from disappointment.
  8. Work on relinquishing control over others. I can’t control how others think or behave. I have enough trouble with my own issues. If struggling, remember #2.
  9. Practice daily gratitude. Always.
  10. Know that plans will change. Lists will get torn up. Goals will be broken. This is life. Let go and move on. Sometimes the unexpected is painful, yet beauty can be found. Continue to look for joy.

When I focus on the wonder of “what is” instead of “what I expect,” I choose to live this life. I am present. I am me. I am living in love.

“Love is the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves without any insistence that they satisfy you.” – Wayne Dyer

“I let go of all expectation. People, places, and things are free to be themselves, and I am free to be me.” – Louise Hay


Promises Made, Broken, and Forgotten: A New Year of “I Wills”

I love to set goals, especially at the beginning of weeks or months or years. I lay out all my promises to myself with innocent glee. For the first few days I’m a maniac working diligently on the list, but quickly I lose focus. A day goes by and then another. The energy wanes. The intentions soon fade, and then I’m back to wondering, “What the hell? Why can’t I concentrate? Damn.” Then I am back to a new week or month or year. The different (or same) list is made. Affirmations are written down with the best of intentions. I tell myself this time I will accomplish my goals. And the cycle repeats itself.

So, why do I continue this behavior? According to vocabulary.com, a resolution is, “a decision to do something or to behave in a certain manner.” Making resolutions or goals gives us direction, even if we swerve off course. When I taught high school, I would make daily lists in the morning and cross off as I accomplished each task. They kept me focused, and frankly, if I didn’t write it down I would forget. It is the same with resolutions. When we write them down or make them public, they become real. Psychology Today states the best predictor to success is “self-efficacy – the belief in one’s ability to get the job done.” Set realistic goals, believe in yourself, and then plan out how to accomplish them. Don’t give up after a slip. Just set a new goal and move forward. 

Sounds simple? No, in fact, resolutions are damn hard. This is why the majority of them fail in the first few weeks. But why do we keep making them? Human nature, that’s why. We humans are on a constant quest to improve our lives. Very few of us wish for bad health or messy houses or terrible relationships. We desire more, and so we continue New Year’s resolutions year after year.

As I teeter on the cusp of a new year, I ponder how our lives shifted dramatically in the last twelve months. My husband got a new job in a new state. We sold stuff, donated stuff, and moved stuff to our new home. I left old friends in my old town, but am slowly making new ones in my new town. Most of my New Year’s resolutions from last year faltered, sputtered, and tanked, yet I am determined to come up with a fresh list to welcome 2018. What are my chances of actualization? Well, I’ll never know unless I try, so this year I have five “I wills.” 

  1. I will write. My writing suffered with the move. I seemed to have lost something, whether it was inspiration or determination, but I have decided I am lost without it. I am a writer, so I will write. I won’t be afraid to put my words out there, even if they face rejection or are ignored. I’m looking at signing up for writing conferences, writing groups, and even submitting works to online publications. Writing is a vital part of who I am, and I need to nurture it.
  2. I will eat healthy. I discovered back in November that my bad cholesterol is too high. If ignored, I risk clogged arteries and heart disease. This new year will include healthy choices, including backing off from alcohol, at least for “Sober January.” After that, everything in moderation. More vegetables. Less sugar. More beans and nuts. Less white rice and pasta. More water. Less wine. More fruit. Less crap. More oatmeal. Less carb-filled breakfasts. If I want to run around with the grandchildren, this is how I will eat and live. 
  3. I will step away from my phone more. For a few days each monthI will not check social media or read the news, especially anything to do with that crazy loon “in charge.” I will not drown in all the negativity; instead I will attack my “to be read” list with verve, which includes Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a few new young adult authors and titles, and some nonfiction.
  4. I will buy less stuff. I do not need more clothes or tchotchkes for the house. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle will help the budget and clear the mind of needless mess.
  5. I will practice yoga and meditation daily. Both will help with the other goals. Mindfulness creates calm, creativity, and energy from within. It is all about embracing the zen.

The key to success is believing it is possible. Faith. Hope. Vision. Looking to the new year with fresh eyes and an open heart. These are my “I wills.” I acknowledge I will stumble, but with each fall I will learn to accept my faults, my gifts, and my determination to really live this life.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself. Changing yourself. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. – Neil Gaiman

 “The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him.” - Roald Dahl
“The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him.” – Roald Dahl

A Christmas State of Mind

When I was a young mother of two small boys, Christmas was crazily chaotic. December flew by in a mad jumble of holiday concerts (both choir AND band), classroom parties, quick trips to the mall, and cold nights spent watching hockey at the ice rink. I often plied them with pizza or McDonald’s because I barely had time to breathe, let alone cook a healthy meal. Sometimes I felt as though I was failing at the whole Christmas tradition game. Riddled with guilt I would try to squeeze in an afternoon of cookie baking, thinking this would be the holiday memory they would carry into adulthood, but usually the little traitors disappeared to the basement after five minutes of attempting to decorate, licking green and red icing off their fingers as they escaped the mess.

When I look back at those days now, though, I know I was doing the best I could. My boys have their own backpacks of holiday memories from visiting Santa and Mrs. Claus in Central Park to jumping with unbridled glee when they saw their presents under the tree. One Christmas we flew out to California to visit my brother’s family and they got to throw a football around on the beach while everyone back home was shoveling out from a huge snowstorm.

Now when I look around at other young mothers rushing around, trying to make everything Pinterest perfect, I want to whisper, “Slow down, my loves. These precious days with your children will be over in an instantaneous flicker. Cherish the small, unimportant moments, not the grandiose and glittery ones. Put down your phones. Look at their faces. Listen to their sweet voices. Know your time with them is short and exquisite and magical. You do not have to create the “perfect” holiday. Just giggle with them and have fun. Always, always remember to have fun.”

“Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind.” – Mary Ellen Chase

 We always had music, games, and laughter in our little house on christmas. Oh, and brotherly love, of course!
We always had music, games, and laughter in our little house on christmas. Oh, and brotherly love, of course!

My Grown-up Christmas List

The Christmas season always makes me a little weepy. Sometimes all the frivolity is just too much. Tears often flow at the end of Hallmark movies, in the middle of crowded stores, or when a especially poignant song comes on the radio. Usually it is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” because no matter who sings it, that song is heartbreaking, but the other morning another Christmas song took me by surprise. I was driving around, doing some last minute shopping, when “Grown-up Christmas List” popped up on Holly, a holiday station on satellite radio. I found myself gulping down sobs as I listened to the lyrics. When I pulled over in a mall parking lot, I wiped messy tears from my old face. 

What was it about this song that dredged up such emotions? I looked up the lyrics while I ate my Panera soup and sandwich. This song encapsulates this messy, broken world we live in today, even though it was written in 1990. Every generation has its demons and its heroes. At the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century, Saddam Hussein rattled his swords throughout the Middle East, Lech Walesa became president of Poland, and the Berlin Wall was demolished. The United States was on the verge of a major recession. Nelson Mandela was freed from a South African prison. President Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov signed an agreement to end chemical weapons production. Evil was present, yet good marched forward.

Many of us believe the tribulations we face today are unscalable, but for every bullying, sexist tweet or vicious attempt at oppression there are hundreds of examples of truth. Our beliefs may often seem shattered, yet hope reigns. The devils are everywhere: in our churches, our schools, our movies, and in our government. They prey on the vulnerable. They steal from the poor. They rob of us our innocence. Often it seems as if they are suffocating us, pilfering our dreams, but there are also angels among us that outnumber these demons. They fight for truth. They help the downtrodden. They hold out their hands to help. Decency triumphs because history isn’t kind to dictators, oligarchs, and purveyors of hate.

Before I sat down to write this, I listened to different interpretations of “Grown-up Christmas List.” From Amy Grant to Kelly Clarkson to Michael Buble, each summoned up childhood lists, my wishes for books or dolls or board games. I scanned the night sky on Christmas Eve, hoping to spot Santa’s sleigh. Now I’m older, I still believe in Santa but my lists have changed. I no longer want toys. I pray for peace. I hope for justice. I propose love, because love is stronger that hate. This is my grownup Christmas list.

“So here’s my lifelong wish,

My grown-up Christmas list,

Not for myself, but for a world in need:

No more lives torn apart,

Then wars would never starts,

And time would heal all hearts.

And every one would have a friend,

And right would always win,

And love would never end

This is my grown-up Christmas list.”

Songwriters: Linda Thompson/David Foster

 In every photo I took of this angel, the dove she’s carrying appeared fuzzy. I’d like to think it’s a sign that hope is here, taking flight from our hearts to heal the universe.
In every photo I took of this angel, the dove she’s carrying appeared fuzzy. I’d like to think it’s a sign that hope is here, taking flight from our hearts to heal the universe.

Blue Christmas

Christmas. To many it is a time of bright lights and colorful presents and joyful noise unto the world. To others it can be a difficult, and even blue time of the year. One is bombarded with jolly messages and flocks of red and green, but these things can be reminders of things lost or broken. Often, the heart can’t take all this forced Christmas cheer.

What is to blame for this “holiday syndrome”? Was it created by psychiatrists and psychologists in order to increase their patient loads? Is it because so many are overwhelmed with all of the family obligations, school concerts, office parties, and the overabundance of food and liquor at every gathering? Could it be the Hallmark and Lifetime movies that are shown around the clock that depict the “perfect” small town Christmas, complete with caroling townspeople and a magical Santa? Or is it perhaps the onslaught of heart-wrenching songs such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Please Come Home for Christmas” that focus on missing loved ones who are far away during the holiday season? Or could it be the popularity of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life that has contributed to the mythology that the suicide rates spike around Christmas?

Whatever the reason, this season does bring out the blues in many of us. Instead of cheerful, we feel melancholy. Our expectations are often way out of whack with reality. We are gloomy, even when surrounded by holiday festivities. There is so much going on this time of the year that we sometimes want to hide from it all. Crawling in a dark closet and staying there until February sounds surprisingly appealing.

How do we combat the holiday blues? There’s tons of advice out there. Exercise. Eat well. Drink more water than alcohol. Stay away from the news (especially good advice this year!). Simplify. Learn to say no. Have gratitude for what you have instead of focusing on what is missing.

Me? In our old house, I had a blue Christmas tree. We’d tramp out to the tree farm for a real one that went in the family room, and the artificial tree was set up in what was the living room and eventually became my writing office. This was the tree I decorated with all the blue and silver bulbs and ornaments I  collected over the years. It sparkled and glittered and reminded me that even when I was glum during this crazy season, I had only to look at this shimmering tree to experience joy. This year in our new, smaller home I decided to put a few of the blue and silver ornaments on a tiny tree out by our front porch. It resembles Charlie Brown’s little tree, but it still reminds me to keep hope in my heart, even in the darkest of times. 

I do find “comfort and joy” in this blue tree of mine, whether it is inside or out.  It reminds me to breathe, to slow down, and to acknowledge the blues are part of the human condition.

    “And when those blue snowflakes start falling

    That’s when those blue memories start calling

    You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white

    But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas.” 

    –Blue Christmas Songwriters: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson

 Christmas 2018 update: we still have our blue christmas tree but it is covered in colored lights this year. I put twinkle lights in my office to remind me there is always a flicker of hope, even in the darkest of times.
Christmas 2018 update: we still have our blue christmas tree but it is covered in colored lights this year. I put twinkle lights in my office to remind me there is always a flicker of hope, even in the darkest of times.

My Reading Prayers

My friend Marcia often texts me book recommendations. Titles and photos of dust jackets pop up on my phone like surprise Christmas gifts. Some of them I’ve already read, a few are placed on my ever growing TBR list, and others are devoured as soon as the “ting” comes through my screen. Her latest, My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, had been sitting on my shelf for almost two years. I had revisited both Prince of Tides and Beach Music after Conroy’s death in 2016, and the dark family stories he covered made me step away from him for my mental health, so this little book sat unread.

My Reading Life is a series of essays on Conroy’s love of books and how they led him to his writing life. He wrote about the power of the written word and how books gave him the world, thanks to his well-read mother and a series of teachers who recognized the fire in this broken, scarred young man. He praised Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings, the works of Thomas Wolfe, and hundreds of other novels that showed him glory and grace, beauty and destruction, retribution and forgiveness. Conroy haunted book stores, collecting works of Tolstoy, Hemingway, Shakespeare, and O’Connor. This southern writer acknowledged the poetry and prose of other authors inspired and saved him every day of his life.

My own reading life began as a young girl, curled up on the corner of our couch with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of the West or Nancy Drew mysteries. My mother let me check out books without censor, never questioning the age appropriateness, and for that, I am grateful. Books were my window to the world beyond my little town. I danced with Russian aristocrats, farmed with Native Americans, and road steam engines across this country. I loved both steamy romance paperbacks and classic novels such as The Secret Garden and Little Women

Books continue to give me comfort. They are my refuge, my sanctuary, my dreams. Conroy wrote, “Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me.” Books have been my own personal church. I have found the divine in lines that still make me gasp in delight and recognition. Romeo’s pre-dawn whisper to Juliet, “And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget, Forgetting any other home but this,”or Huck’s struggle with his conscience when he spurts, “Alright then, I’ll go to hell,” or especially Dumbledore’s question to Snape, “After all this time?” and Snape replies, “Always.” These words are holy, filled with longing, love, regret, and pain. They are my warmth when the world gets too unhinged. Conroy wrote, “Some of us read to ratify our despair about the world; other chase to read because it offers one of the only safety nets where love and hope can find comfort.” I believe I find both in all the books I have read and the ones I have yet to open.

When we moved last spring I gave away hundreds of books, knowing we wouldn’t have room for them in our tiny new home. Some were donated to the library for their used book sale, a few were placed in Beth’s Free Little Library, but most were given away to friends. I wanted to share these books, not hoard them away, with hope the readers would find their own little prayers tucked away in them. I have since purchased a few more books to place on my shelves. I will continue to lend out my favorites, not worrying about their return. Perhaps they’ll be passed on to another. Maybe someone else will embrace the words and find their own peace, their own magic. That, I hope, will be my legacy.

“Maybe this is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words for what we already know.” – Alberto Manguel

“A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation…A book is not only a friend, it makes friend for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.” – Henry Miller, The Books in My Life