Reading without Subways

I don’t know that I would always have defined myself as a “reader” but in the past five years, it is quickly becoming one of the hats I wear and love. When people ask me my hobbies, reading is the first one I mention. My husband teases me that in my ideal future, I would be very content as an 80 year old woman who just rides the New York subway and reads books all day. He is not wrong.

Books and reading are one way I remember I’m an adult with a brain. Sometimes after the 89th reenactment of Fireman Sam saving the day or the 3rd poopy diaper, I forget that I like to think and like to learn. I get frustrated and feel a little trapped. Reading is my favorite way of learning. On a side note, Bill Gates agrees with me.

So, since I last posted about books, I have read another mystery series- The Gaslight Mysteries based in turn of the century New York City with a great female protagonist, Sarah Brandt. They are not too dark and not too challenging, which is good for someone who is just trying to get through morning sickness and pregnancy insomnia.

But I’ve also read some other books, four in particular that I loved. No two of which are alike, which may have added to my enjoyment of them.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson was recommended by a few friends and John Grisham (in a magazine article). I was so moved by the book that I gave it to all my family members for Christmas. This is an important book that looks at our criminal justice system, how it disadvantages entire communities and the very hard work that a small group of people are doing to change it. I wept at night while reading it and despite the tough topic, found myself hopeful at the end of it, as well as convicted about what I can do to help. I truly believe everyone should read this book.

The Tears of Dark Water by Corban Addison was another favorite. I always love his books- A Walk Across the Sun brought the issue of human trafficking to my attention and The Tears of Dark Water was similar. I could not put this book down and it made me look at the plot from lots of different perspectives. Detailed, compelling and beautiful, I was transported to a land halfway around the world that is radically different from where I live.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart was recommended by the NPR Book Concierge, an app I plan to use more often. I loved this story of Constance Kopp and her sisters, women who did not fit the mold in 1914, who rather than running and hiding from trouble face it head on. Each of the characters made me laugh and I found myself smiling at their antics and impressed with their courage.

And lastly, if there were such a thing as a reading hero, mine would be Kristen Robbins Warren, my former roommate and all-star middle school teacher in Brooklyn. I read her blog, A Kind of Library, regularly and love her reviews and recommendations. Recently, she recommended Hunting and Gathering by Anna Galvada, a French novel, translated into English (I’m not quite that good at French yet) about two lonely characters who find one another and gather a group of misfits to create their own place of belonging and home. The language is beautiful and I had a lot of fun recognizing many of the cultural references and general attitudes. The book is, as Kristin says, a micro-issue book, looking at how we find one another, connect with one another and create belonging.

Read them. Love them. Hate them. Let me know.

What to Read when You are Depressed

So my blog post about depression took a lot out of me. I don’t mind sharing about my depression and OCD and obviously I want people to read what I write but as soon as I published the post I thought, oh wow, now more people know my stuff. And I kind of didn’t know what to write about next. I did not intend to make this blog about mental illness and I don’t think it will permanently stay in that category. But, I heard back from my friend and she asked a really good question. And I realized I have more to say and really wish someone had written this blog post for me. So here it is.

My friend wrote me and asked about my faith. She said, “It’s as if [God’s] left me all alone but is relevant in so many other people’s lives. Any advice?” Ugh. Tough, right? And yes, I know that feeling well. I think even people who are not depressed struggle with this question. Why are other people so happy or so confident and I am not? Am I alone? And so I wanted to write another follow up post about being a Christian and being a depressed person. It is hard to deal with sometimes and not made easier by some of the things my fellow Christians said. Things like, “But the joy of the Lord is our strength” (apparently from somewhere in the Bible) “What unconfessed sin do you have in your life?” (yeah, for real someone asked me that) and another favorite, “Just pray more.”

Here are some things I have learned: My faith is not my feelings. Rather, God is not based on how I feel about him. I had to do a lot of work separating my beliefs from my feelings. I may have gone too far since I haven’t had a lot of emotional religious experiences since then but as someone who grew up in an evangelical church, I think I’ve had more than my share. 

I don’t really have a lot of the answers but I found a lot of comfort in books, especially books written by other people who have had these questions. I found three or four books to be particularly relevant and encouraging while I was depressed.

  1. Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey– The title is somewhat explanatory but the book deals with what to do when you feel let down by God. Yancey has had plenty of experience with this and addresses it in a gentle, easy, non-judgmental way. One of my favorite points of the book was about leprosy. Stay with me. People who have leprosy lose the ability to experience pain. Because of this they are at a higher risk of hurting themselves. Yancey’s point is this- pain is a gift because it means we can still feel. It might sound like a cop out but I found my depression to be a gift as I said before because it means I am still alive internally.
  2. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott– This book was one that showed me how to reconcile some of my thoughts about the world with my faith. Lamott is funny and dry and real. Her understanding of God’s love for the whole world and particularly for broken people helped me as someone who felt she had it all together and then lost it. I mourned what I had lost (my perfect grades, achievements, etc) until I read this book and then began to see that maybe I should rejoice in what I found (a heart for other people, humility, sensitivity, vulnerability).
  3. The winner of all books for depressed people in my opinion- The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen. A Catholic priest who left his post at Harvard Divinity School to work with the developmentally and mentally disabled at L’Arche in Canada. He kept a journal of spiritual mandates for himself while he went through a major depressive period. He published this journal and I found it on the bookshelf at our church. It had a nice cover and so I picked it up. My mom actually read it in one night and then told me, “You have to read this. It’s written for you.” I have never before or since connected with a book on such a deep level. My favorite message in the world of “You alone are enough” or “You’re never enough,” is this: “God loves you and his love is enough.” Done. I think that sums it up for me.

And as a special bonus for people who struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or who love someone who struggles with OCD, I recommend The Imp of the Mind. I have trouble explaining what OCD is like. Yes, it can be a lot of compulsions, like washing hands, checking locks, repeating rituals. But there’s another insidious side to it that resides just internally. Like everyone, people with OCD have intrusive thoughts but unlike other people, we cannot ignore them. They play over and over in our minds and become obsessions. This book more than any other has given me words and metaphors for my OCD. It also helped me feel less alone once I realized there is a group of people (even if it is small) who also have these cycles.

I know depression and mental illness are unique to each person. You may have walked away from the church because of your illness. You may have joined the church because of yours. You may have started a church because of it. I know how personal it is. This is not meant to be a fix-all or some sort of solution. Just a couple of suggestions from someone who’s been there too. 

A Different Kind of Celebration

When we moved to Geneva, I kept January 2016 in the front of my mind. Three years, I thought. I can do this. I’ll move back with a four year old and maybe another child. I can live anywhere for three years. Three Christmases. Three Easters. Only three ski seasons so make it worth it.

Well, now we have arrived at January 2016. My deadline has arrived and it is just be another January. See, something happened between the first gray January week we arrived and now. We have really come to like Geneva. If you had asked me two years ago, or maybe even one year ago, I would have said I tolerated Geneva but would never love it. I would have been wrong. It’s a great city. My son and daughter are learning French. We can see the Alps every day (barring the fog which is bad November through January) and it’s the perfect mix of big city assets (great public transportation, museums and cultural activities) without the traffic and sprawl of Houston or London or New York. The Swiss are polite and reserved and I like that. They have good cheese, incredible chocolate and it’s safe. Our church is unbelievably diverse and we have made really good friends through a small group and through Forest’s school and Josh’s work.

In the past year, we have bought a house and a car. I was able to do some of those things in French. I got my hair cut- including bangs (or fringe)!- all in French. I can make reservations and chat with dog groomers and doctor’s assistants in French. Learning the language has been tough. I studied Spanish in high school and college and while the vocabulary is similar (thanks Latin), the accent could not be more different. But perhaps the most “a-ha” moment for me was selling our old car.  We had an old SUV and sold it to a friend of ours. Since we had purchased it three years earlier from another friend, I knew the process. We had to go to the DMV and switch the title to his name, prove he had insurance, change our address and register new plates. What a difference three years made. This time I was the one who was speaking and explaining the insurance complications. It wasn’t pretty but it got done. Making an effort to understand the language and culture of the place we live has proven invaluable. I’m sure that’s obvious to you but I wonder about places I have lived before this. What if I had taken more time to understand the culture of my neighborhood in New York or Houston? I assumed that America is America but maybe I could have enjoyed it more.

But I’ve been thinking about something bigger than that. What do you do when you reach your goal? When you set a date or some other goal ahead of you and you get there. It feels anticlimactic in a way. I did it. I lived in Geneva for three years and am on track to live here for a few more. Only one more and I will have lived here longer than anywhere else since I was in college. The very thought of January 2016 seemed so far away when we first moved and I anticipated the extreme relief I would feel when we reached our goal and then moved back. But instead of enduring it, I like it so much I want to keep going. It’s a strange when you don’t feel what you expected to feel. I’m almost disappointed- not that we are staying and enjoying it but January 2016 was held out as my great hope, my month of celebration and now… I don’t know. I don’t really have much of a point here but am processing as I write. That’s probably not a great writing method. I know there are trite answers like “Live in the moment and you won’t have this problem” or “Enjoy every day because if you’re waiting for tomorrow, you’ll miss what’s in front of you.” I understand those and don’t think I’ve been missing out on our life here because I had January 2016 as my goal. But as someone who loves lists and plans and the security they seem to bring (though I know they don’t actually bring any sort of safety), I think I struggle to not have an end goal or an end date.

At the same time, I do find a lot of comfort in the fact that we have made it longer than we thought we would. We’ve made a home here and I’m able to communicate. I’m proud of that. Maybe January 2016 will be a month of celebration- just of something different- of our desire to stay, our victories no matter how small and of our great friends who have made this place our home.

Depression and Me

This month is Suicide Prevention Month. I wrote this for a friend but realized that I had a slightly larger platform to share it on. I hope you don’t mind.

Just some background- when I was seventeen, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had suicidal thoughts and felt like I was going crazy. I left school for six weeks and sat at home on the sofa watching Law and Order and eating turkey sandwiches. I was later also diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I have found counseling and medication to help a lot. I am passionate about mental health and believe that sharing our stories can help one another. I am open about my own struggles for that reason. I’m also happy to hear from you and answer questions at any time.

Dear friend,

When I heard you were struggling with depression, I wanted to write you a letter. Then I realized other people might benefit from reading this so I wrote it as a blog post. I hope that is ok. I wish  depression was something only you and I had experience with. Or maybe I don’t wish that because part of what helped me a lot was realizing how many people struggle with mental illness of all kinds, not just depression. Did you know Mother Teresa was depressed at many points in her life? Martin Luther had some serious mental health issues. So did many US presidents, famous musicians and artists. A lot of us have this illness. My first point is you are not alone.

But that might not change how you feel. If you’re anything like me, you feel like you have an emotional tapeworm, something that is just sucking the life out of you. Things that used to make you happy and whole don’t bring those same feelings about. You feel empty. I know that feeling well. I know it so well that I pray regularly that my own daughter would be so very full of life. Which brings me to my second point: You are not your feelings. You are so much more than how you feel. You are bright and kind and valued and you are not the sum of your emotions. It feels like you cannot trust your own emotions right now. It feels like they are letting you down just by being there. You are more than that and at your center, you are a worthy human being who is very, very loved. You might not feel it now but be patient. As one of my very favorite lines from the Narnia series says, “Take courage Dear Heart.” It takes courage to hold on and believe in something that you cannot see or feel. Be brave.

I used to say I would not wish depression on my worst enemy. I probably still wouldn’t but I also wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. It may sound crazy but depression saved my life. How to explain this… I recently read the story of Jonah to my son. As I was reading it, a sentence jumped out at me from his little children’s Bible, “God sent the whale to rescue Jonah.” I had always seen the whale as the punishment. If only Jonah had obeyed, he would not have had to endure the whale. I hadn’t realized something worse than the whale was looming over Jonah- death. He was about to die and God sent a whale to rescue him. The whale was the rescuer. It’s the best analogy I’ve found for my depression. My depression saved me. Because of my depression, I made friends out of people I would have ignored. I discovered that I actually don’t want to be perfect and it’s exhausting to try. I want to be whole and happy and part of that is being creative. I learned how to take care of myself and know myself and not be swept away by the current mood or trends or events. Depression saved me from being not myself. Said another way, depression is one of the key things that made me who I am and showed me deep parts of my heart that I would have missed otherwise.

That’s not to say it’s fun. It’s terrible. It’s dark and you feel like no one notices you or hears you. You wonder who would show up to your funeral. You wonder if anyone would miss you. I know you think these things because I did. I sat in my room and wondered if life was worth living. When I heard you were sick, I was on a walk with my kids. My life is not perfect. I still struggle with my OCD and depression on a regular basis. But I looked at these two precious little lives and was overwhelmed with gratitude- for my children who would not exist if I had believed my own thoughts, for my family and counselors who did not believe the darkness that I was convinced was taking over my life, for my husband who was willing to love me and enter into a mess of emotions and ups and downs with me and for myself, for being brave and strong. You will find your people. And I am choosing to believe for you, since you cannot believe it for yourself right now, that you will look back in gratitude for those who helped you and for yourself, for your strength, your self-awareness and your faith.

I love you and am for you, so for you. Hang in there. You are a treasure, a unique, interesting person and this life would absolutely not be the same without you.

Jane

Kiss. Kiss. Headbutt.

Greeting someone from our own country is hard enough for Americans. Do you shake hands? Kiss on the cheek? Hug? Awkwardly side hug so you make zero contact with the other person’s chest? But when you add in other cultures there is just no chance at getting it right. People from France kiss on each cheek when they greet each other. People from the UK tend to kiss on just one cheek. The Swiss? Three times. And when you live in Geneva, a part of Switzerland surrounded by the French, greetings are fraught with danger.

Nowhere is this more evident than at a party. We recently went to a party with people from France, Switzerland, Ohio, Argentina and Australia to name a few (only in Geneva). I spent much of the party kissing cheeks and shaking hands and hoping to not actually kiss anyone’s mouth. Some people are able to carry off these greetings without even acknowledging the awkwardness. Others just own up to it. “I’m going for two kisses,” one guy announced as he greeted me. I was so relieved to find some Americans who were eager to just shake hands that we ended up talking for five minutes about how relieved we were to just shake hands.

Once at a grocery store I ran into an American woman I know. Since we are in Switzerland, we greeted each other with kisses on the cheek but since she’s an American, three felt excessive so I stopped at two.The other woman went for a third kiss. At that exact moment, Annie made a screeching noise so I looked down and to my right.  The result? I head butted the other woman. At the nice grocery store. I often assume two kisses is plenty and as a result have actually ended up kissing people on the mouth when they went for three kisses. It’s important to work on speed in ending the greetings: kiss, kiss and quickly pull your head back so they cannot make contact with lips.

Even the kids recognize there is something about greetings that is important. Forest has a friend named Max, the grandson of our former landlady. When Max would visit his grandmother, he and Forest would play in the garden. Once when Max came over, he and Forest ran to each other, arms wide open, shouting one another’s names. “Forest!” “Max!” But when they reached each other, they did not know what to do. Max went to greet Forest with two kisses and Forest just wanted a hug. I believe they ended up in a pile on the grass.

I appreciate the warmth of greeting here. It can make me feel very sophisticated when I greet someone with such a complicated gesture as three kisses. But at the same time, there is nothing more anxiety-producing than trying to read the situation before greeting. “Is this person Swiss? French? Just a Brit speaking French?” Perhaps we should all wear our preferences on nametags at parties. “Hello. My name is Jane and I like handshakes. Thanks.”

Recent Reading

Maybe I just write these because I like to keep track of what I’ve read. Maybe it’s to show off. But I think the real reason is that I wish more people wrote lists of what they’ve been reading. I am regularly finishing books only to go to WhatShouldIReadNext.com to find a suggestion. I click on any reading lists links I can find. So I’m trying to pay it forward I guess.

British Murder Mystery Series:

I have loved this genre since just after Annie is born. I tried to read classics and got utterly stuck. Bleak House is exactly as described- bleak. So I started reading a British murder mystery called A Test of Wills, the first in the Ian Rutledge series. Then after reading that series, I read the Bess Crawford series also by Charles Todd. Both are set in England in the years surrounding World War I. After those, I read the Maisie Dobbs series, set in the years after World War I. And then the Maggie Hope series, set during World War II. All that to say, I think I have exhausted my options in this genre but I really enjoyed them. If you’re a mystery fan, you should try one of these series.

Non-Fiction:

I also got into non-fiction books recently. And not just history. I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and promptly followed at least the first step of Marie Kondo’s organization program. She is a little obsessive about tidying- she described a few incidents of angering her siblings by tidying their rooms and throwing their stuff away. But, I practiced holding each item of clothing and asking, “Does this bring me joy?” and I ended up giving away several large bags of clothes.

I also read The Road to Character by David Brooks. I really enjoy Brooks’ column in the New York Times and was intrigued by a review I read of this book. Brooks investigated historical figures and looked at the character traits that set each apart. He said that people with character have practiced a “long obedience in the same direction,” something that stands out from our rapidly changing culture. I really enjoyed the book though it did get a little long.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is not exactly non-fiction, but it is based on Boo’s visits to Mumbai slums and is more non-fiction than not. The book was a very detailed picture of the slums of Mumbai and the issues of poverty on both local and global levels.

And I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Words cannot begin to describe this book. The language is beautiful and moving and the book itself is just devastating. Written as a long letter to his son, Between the World and Me is Coates’ reflection on being black in America. I’d strongly encourage everyone to read it. I have never looked at race and differences as deeply as he does in this book.

Literature:

I read three books that I somehow missed reading in school. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving was fantastic. Owen Meany is an unforgettable character and this book made me cry, laugh, swear and think. I was truly sad when I finished it as I had to leave behind an incredible cast of characters. That being sad, the book was one of the most complete I’ve ever read, if that makes sense.

At the beach this year, we shared our favorite books. All three of my brothers said East of Eden by John Steinbeck. So I read it. It is really good. You should read it too- family, humanity, fall, redemption, it’s all in there. I would put it in a list of my favorites- which I am compiling and will post here sometime soon.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger was always on my parents shelf and I think at least two of my brothers had to read it for tenth grade English. A magical story of a boy and his dad and sister who travel through the US looking for his older brother who is on the run from the law. One part family drama, one part coming of age and one part beautiful poetic descriptions of America.

Miracle Food

I recently went out to dinner with a number of other American and British women. We are all moms who stay home full time so a night out was fun albeit full of talking about our children. But it was warm and we ate outside in a trendier part of Geneva- a nice break from hot dogs and chicken nuggets in my kitchen.

The food itself was great and fresh but it was not what stuck out to me at this dinner. I was surprised by the conversation. Not the main topics- of course we covered parenting issues, our upcoming summer trips, current events but the entire evening was laced with this narrative about food that seems to be specific to women. I rarely (if ever) hear this dialogue from men but cannot go out with women and not hear it.

“Someone take this bread basket away! I can’t stop myself.”

“I would love to get the caprese salad but I shouldn’t. I didn’t go to spin class today.”

“I guess I can let myself cheat just this once.”

One American woman told me that she has gained so much more weight in Switzerland because of all the fresh bread. I asked about her time in the States since Americans tend to be much heavier than Europeans. She said that the amount of carbs available here meant she ate way too much. So I explained that the French approach to this is much more measured. In the book French Women Don’t Get Fat (which is not an entirely true assertion but fairly accurate) the author, Mireille Guiliano, explains that women in France approach food as something to be enjoyed and savored. They eat smaller portions. They eat all kinds of food, mostly fresh. They would never cut out an entire food group or overdo it on any one. That chapter was my favorite section- the one where she addressed protein overloading: “Half a pound of anything in one sitting is probably not good for you.” When I explained this to my friend she whined, “Yes, but Swiss women walk everywhere and are always moving!” Only in America would we rather cut out an entire (miraculous*) food group than walk to the grocery store. My favorite suggestion from the book was the “pick two” idea. Instead of eating bread, drinking wine and ordering dessert, maybe just pick two. That is a healthier approach to life- maybe don’t overdo it in all areas. Don’t eat all the things, all the time. Wise woman.

Now, there is a deeper issue of course. Society has ridiculous standards for women that it does not have for men. Women talk about diet and appearance because we are told we are valued for that. I understand that. By no means am I trying to gloss over major issues with food. I have several friends who have had serious struggles with anorexia and bulimia. This is not meant to diminish those experiences. But my point is this- in general, we waste so much time talking about food and our relationship to it. We could accomplish, share, create so much more if we just gave up the script about food.

French and Swiss women don’t discuss food while they are eating except to say something is “Cela a un meilleur goût” (This tastes good). They don’t have this need to share their diet with one another. There is so much shame hovering around a table of American women eating. And we do not help each other out. If you don’t want to eat the bread, fine. But try to help your friends out by not disparaging them for eating bread. American women (maybe all Western women) see being anything less than skinny as a moral failure. Another woman here told me about her friend who adopted several children. “She’s a saint. I mean, she’s overweight but she’s a saint.” I almost spit out my food. Which would have been a tragedy because it was delicious.

I don’t know what the answer is. I am not a model of this. In fact, while I am writing this blog post, I am simultaneously ordering a lot of Indian food. But I hope we can figure it out. Ask more questions, worry less about people judging you for eating bread. Please see my note below. Help your fellow American women out and don’t mention carbs or protein. And quit talking about your diet. It’s the kind (and European) thing to do.

* On a side note, I think bread has gotten a really bum rap. I am currently reading At Home by Bill Bryson and one chapter is devoted to the development of city and community living. He wisely points out just how miraculous it is that we discovered that not only could we eat grain but at some point, we had to thresh it, grind it into flour, combine it with other ingredients, put it in a oven and hope it all worked out. Bread is an incredible feat of human persistence. I think it should be celebrated. We should all be dancing when the bread basket arrives not bemoaning its existence.