Books I Read in 2015

Open Head

The most books I’ve read in a year since electroshock!  It gets easier and easier.  Thank you, Suanne Wilmen, MHS Reading Teacher, for helping me get my brain back!

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•Ahlborn, Ania. Within These Walls.  The one good thing about this book is the ending—a twist worthy of a horror novel.  But getting to that ending is torture and not worth the effort.  I can’t count the times I threw this across the room because the characters were so incredibly dumb.  If there’s one thing I cannot stand, especially in a horror novel, is the stereotypical, obtuse dolt.  Gee, did someone break into my house and rearrange my furniture?  Why is a bloody specter grinning from my bathroom mirror?  Pfft!  Pull on a red shirt already and join the Enterprise, because, buddy, you’re toast.  Oops.  Did I spoil that ending?

•Binchy, Maeve.  Tara Road.  I found this on the “Free Books” table at the library, knew Binchy was Irish, and thought “what the heck.”  Once I got into it, I kept thinking of Ellen over at Notes from the U.K. and our discussions on how we, as American writers, anguish over making our U.K. characters sound authentic.  Binchy’s characters will never sound anything other than Irish—no matter what nationality she says they are—which I found delightful.  This soap opera with an Irish brogue was lots of fun.

Written In Red.indd•Bishop, Anne.  Written in Red.  In this alternate universe, The Others are the predominant intelligent species on Earth.  Basically, shape-shifters, they tolerate humanity—barely.  When a young woman seeks refuge with an Other community, the repercussions ripple across the globe.  The story is well written with a cool premise and interesting characters.  I got bit hard and needed more.

•Bishop, Anne.  Murder of Crows.  The sequel to Written in Red.  Meg and her friends, both Other and human, discover that blood prophets—young girls who see the future when their skin is cut—are the source of two terrifying drugs.  This time out, we get to see how the different regions interact, meet new Others, and watch the “friendship” between Meg and Simon Wolfgard grow.  Arroooo!

•Bishop, Anne.  Vision in Silver.  The third book in Bishop’s “The Others” series.  I’m completely hooked. Love the characters, love the world, love the intrigue.  You’d think if you lived by the leave of a race that could wipe you off the face of the earth, you’d play nice.  But we’re talking about humans, who are the worst at learning from history. Bishop makes me believe we could be that dumb.

•Bishop, Anne.  The Pillars of the World.  Since I loved Bishop’s The Others series, I thought I’d see what else she’d written.  This high-fantasy story involves witches, The Fae, and witch-hunts.  The Fae are a mash-up of pagan and Greco-Roman gods with the requisite arrogance, vanity and very short memories.  Their land is disappearing, and they stand around wringing their hands and pouting.  They are too similar to human beings in this respect to be very interesting.

cashore

•Cashore, Kristin. Fire.  On this side of Cashore’s world (introduced in Graceling—see last year’s list), there be monsters—animals that look like regular critters except for their rainbow colors and appetite for human flesh.  Monsters cast a kind of glamour over non-monsters.  People have learned to guard their minds, but some are better at it than others (who mostly get eaten).  Fire is a human monster, beloved or hated wherever she goes, so she tries to live inconspicuously.  But the country is about to be torn apart by war, and her special talents are needed.  I love Cashore’s storytelling and characters that live burdened lives.  A thousand stars.

•Cashore, Bitterblue.  In this sequel to Graceling, the teen-aged queen of Monsea is overwhelmed by how to help her people, who were ravaged by her psychotic and sadistic father-king.  Again, Cashore weaves a thoroughly believable world of real people with spectacular ability and complexity.  Her characters are smart.  The intrigue air-tight.  Alas, this is the last of Cashore’s books so far.  She’s better be busy scribbling another.

light•Doerr, Anthony. About Grace.  David Winkler’s precognizant dreams start when he is a child living in Anchorage.  He’s an odd man anyway, fascinated by water and the crystalline beauty of snow, but this terrifying ability pushes him to desperate acts.  Doerr’s writing is lush and breath-taking, his characters almost too painful to watch.  I never knew where this story would go, which was a delight, but sometimes cryptic does not equal artistic.  I felt cheated in the end.

•Doerr, Anthony.  All the Light We Cannot See.  I have no words for this book, just that there’s a reason I had to wait a couple of months for it at the library.  Read it.  You won’t be sorry.

The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter•Duncan, Rod. The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter.  In this fascinating, steam-punk, alternate England Luddites and the supreme power of The International Patent Office keep global peace by banning technology.  Elizabeth Barnabas ekes out a living as a private detective disguised as her “twin brother.”  In exile, drawing on her skills as a circus brat and illusionist, she races to find a missing aristocrat and his arcane machine.  Each leg of her journey is more dangerous and convoluted than the last.  A very tasty read.

•Duncan, Rod.  Unseemly Science.  This is the second volume of Duncan’s Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire where technology is strictly regulated.  England is divided (north and south), and a new law is about extradite Elizabeth Barnabas over the border and back to a life of indentured servitude under (literally) a lascivious lord.  As she flees from capture, she finds marginal safety in taking a case as an intelligence finder for an odd and influential charity worker.  Once again, Duncan leads the reader on a wild ride.  This alternate history is delightful and weird.  I’m looking forward to volume three.

•French, Tana. The Likeness.  I love this author.  She writes tight, detective/murder mysteries set in Ireland.  This time out, her detective, Cassie Maddox, goes undercover to find the killer of a woman who could have been her twin.  French gets us into the head of someone slipping into another’s life and liking it, plus the double tension of all the ways she could get her doppelgänger wrong.  Brilliant.

Faithful Place•French, Tana.  Faithful Place.  Leafing through this book, I worried a little that my favorite detective, Cassie Maddox, had been replaced by the hot-shot Undercover detective introduced in The Likeness.  Frank Mackey is a smart-ass, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to tag along with him through a whole book.  Boy-howdy, was I wrong!  Mackey spent twenty-two years building a life away from his dysfunctional family of origin (we get to see why he’s such a  smart-ass), but a discovery on his old street sucks him back in to relive a pivotal and painful event in his past.  French’s characters are so real, they fly off the page.  Another winner.

•Guterson, David.  Snow Falling on Cedars.  The story begins with a murder trial of a Japanese-American in a small island community off the coast of Washington state in the early 1950s.  Other stories join and interlace this one—the internment of all the Japanese on the island in Manzanar after Pearl Harbor, the young love of the town’s white newspaper man’s son and a Japanese strawberry farmer’s daughter, the destruction of war on a soul and a community.  The book bogs down in detail sometimes, but the beauty and humanity are worth it.

while_they_slept-215x327•Harris, Charlaine.  Dead Until Dark.  After gorging on all seven seasons of HBO’s True Blood, I thought the books might offer more tasty tidbits.  Nope.  Plodding, vapid, with plot holes bigger than a stake through the chest, this first book in the series begged for the True Death.  I won’t be digging up any more of them.

•Harrison, Kathryn. While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family.  This book is mesmerizing.  It tells the true story of eighteen-year-old Billy Gilley, who murdered his parents and little sister in 1984, but not his sixteen-year-old sister Jody.  Harrison, herself an incest survivor, traces the patterns of family violence and abuse in the Gilley family through interviews with both Billy and Jody as well as an enormous amount of research.  Harrison is fearless in opening to the resonance between her own story and the Gilleys’.  For all three of them, violent trauma divided their lives into Before and After.  How does a person reassemble oneself after that?

hounded•Herne, Kevin.  Hounded (Book One in The Iron Druid Chronicles).  I have good friends who read good fantasy and share that tasty knowledge with me.  Thank the gods.  Now I have a whole series to enjoy about a 2100-year old Druid living in southeastern Arizona who runs a New-Age bookstore, mind-links with his Irish wolfhound, and gets legal advice from his werewolf and vampire attorneys.  Here, all the religions, all the myths, all the legends are real.  Most of them either shop his store or try to kill him.  So very tasty.

•Herne, Kevin.  Hexed.  More misadventures of Atticus O’Sullivan, the hunky Druid with the magical sword.  This time out, he deals with Bacchants (minions of the party god, Bacchus), witches—both good and evil, and a variety of demons and fallen angels.  Because he’s now a god-slayer, he’s attracting unwelcome attention from all the pantheons.  Favorite line: Demons smell like ass.

Invention•Herne, Kevin.  Hammered.  Atticus the Druid promised his attorneys (an Icelandic vampire and the alpha of a werewolf pack) that he would get them to Asgard so they could kill Thor (who is an absolute “fuckpuddle” and takes bullying to divine heights).  Along the way, the Fellowship acquires a Slavic Thunder God, a Finnish shaman, and one of China’s Eight Immortals who all want the Asgardian blowhard dead.  Mayhem ensues.  Favorite line: In many ways, I’m disappointed that “Star Trek” never became a religion.

•Kidd, Sue Monk. The Invention of Wings.  I always get a little nervous when someone from one ethnic group creates a protagonist from another ethnic group, then places the story during a dynamic point in history.  But, Sue Monk Kidd is not an author I worry about.  She tells this story of pre-Civil War Charleston from two girls’ point of view—one is a slave, the other her master’s awkward daughter.  The story is full of pain and horror, and beauty and grace.  It’s a treasure and a wonder.

220px-Mrmercedes•King, Stephen.  Mr. Mercedes.  Reading anything by Steve is like coming home for me, but this one offered nothing new.  I was engaged throughout—loved the protagonist, a retired homicide detective who wasn’t handling retirement well, and the set-up of him being contacted by “the one that got away.”  But the bad guy felt phoned in.  If you want good Steve, go read 11/22/63 instead.

•King, Stephen.  Revival.  Ditto.  Okay, buddy, you’re overdue to hit one out of the park.

•King, Stephen.  Finders Keepers.  I think I’ve caught up with my favorite author now.  I love that he brings back the team from Mr. Mercedes—the retired cop, his young neighbor kid, and the young woman with severe anxiety issues they helped rescue.  This time the trio tries to help a teen who finds a buried trunk from a home robbery thirty years in the past.  Steve knows how to build character along with the suspense.  And the bad guy in Mr. Mercedes who felt phoned in is getting ready to make me eat those words.

wally•Lamb, Wally. The Hour I First Believed.  Lots of books are labeled “tapestries,” but that’s exactly what this non-fictional fiction presents.  The fictional main characters are staff at Columbine high school at the time of the student killing spree; the protagonist’s grandmother campaigns for reform in women’s correctional facilities; PTSD, incest, abandonment, mental illness, drug addiction, mythology—the colors and texture of this tapestry weave in a disturbing, enthralling matrix.  Wally Lamb is a wonder.

•Lamb, Wally.  Wishin’ and Hopin’—A Christmas Story.  Not Lamb’s usual psychological taste treat.  More a nostalgic bon-bon.  And Wally thinks he’s funnier that he really is, but the writing is still fine.  He should stick to trauma and dysfunction, though.  That’s hilarious!

9418326•McNeal, Tom. To Be Sung Underwater.  Judith, a middle-aged film editor in California, finds her perfect life unraveling as memories of her first love in Nebraska push her to hire a private detective. Fully-formed characters, a deep sense of place, and well crafted.  If you’ve ever had to leave a love behind, this story will touch a deep chord.

•Pilcher, Rosamunde. The Shell Seekers.  A sprawling novel written in the ’80s about an elderly English woman and her grown children.  The story jumps from present day, to life during WW2, to other events in the family’s history.  I loved the Englishness of it, but found most of the characters tiresome.  The adult children are petty, even the daughter that Penelope (the protagonist) loves is caught up in the career madness of the ’80s.  But, Penelope is lovely, and her father, a famous artist, is fun, and all the English garden/cottage/sea-shore ambience is delicious.  I almost gave it back to the library, but didn’t.  That’s a pretty high recommendation coming from me.

200px-Olive-kitteridge_l•Strout, Elizabeth.  Olive Kitteridge.  Thirteen vignettes that weave together and around the title character in a small New England coastal town.  The characters are complicated, their lives messy and real.  I saw the HBO mini-series first with Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins (both Oscar winners and stunning in this show).  I thought there might be more deliciousness in the book, and I was right.  Strout won a Pulitzer for it.

•Tyler, Anne. The Amateur Marriage.  I’ve always enjoyed Tyler’s weird characters, but this couple made my ass ache.  Michael and Pauline are the epitome of Socrates’  Unexamined Life—married during the rush of post-WW2, they never learn compassion or tolerance of each other, never question their own egotistical take on the world, never grow up.  They suffer, their kids suffer—it’s way too much like real life.  I have plenty of that already.

The Books I Couldn’t Finish

•Karr, Mary.  The Art of Memoir.  After reading excerpts on a friend’s blog, I got all excited.  I’m writing a memoir, and Karr teaches memoir writing—I was bound to find useful treasure.  Not so much.  And what is there, Karr buries in weird asides, like a whole gushing chapter about Nabokov who broke every “rule” in memoir writing, or endless details about her own process.  Ugh.

•Hoffman, Alice. The Dovekeepers.  This is one of those books heralded as “a major contribution to twenty-first-century literature.” The flap says it took Hoffman five years to research and write. According to ancient history, in 70 C.E., 900 Jews held out for months against Roman armies on a mountain in the Judea desert.  Two women and five children survived. Sixty pages in, I didn’t care. So, shoot me.

Shallow Lessons

handmade greeting cards, collage art

Taking a break from myself for the past week turned out to be an experiment in possibility.  Each morning I got up and posed the question “What do I need today?”  Most days involved some sort of exercise, often twice in the same day.  There was usually a call for delicious, healthy food that I cooked myself.  I read a lot, which startled me since reading has been difficult post-ECT.  Soy chai from Starbucks seemed to be the treat I craved most.  I took several trips to the City without being driven by mania or depression to see what that might be like (delightful, by the way).

What I didn’t do was journal or make art—things I’ve done almost every day since I moved back home six years ago.  I only interacted with strangers for the most part.  And I put a moratorium on thinking.

Years ago, when I lived in Minneapolis, my friend, Lily, and I would go on “shallow” dates.  Both of us tended to over-think and ponder deeply the meaning of Life, so we would pick a fluffy movie and go empty our brains together.  Trouble was, we always found The Lesson or A Point to even the most retarded movie.  We laughed that we could find the Gift in lint.

I tried something a little different this week.  I focused on sensation and intuition.  Both of these ways of knowing have become untrustworthy, co-opted by bipolar delusion and compulsion.  I learned not to trust myself, what I feel and what I desire, because the illness warps perception.  But this set up a constant, internal battlefield.  More than just holding tension, or observing my internal workings, I rejected them.  Or I labeled all feeling and desire as part of the illness.  Either/Or thinking is much easier than trying to tease out the healthy from the unhealthy.  It also requires a lot of thought and analysis.

So, this week I practiced not-thinking.  I tried to listen to my body for what it wanted.  I tried to turn in the direction of beauty and ease like a flower toward the sun (no thinking involved there).  And if I felt compulsion push at me, I listened and felt it instead of analyzing and reporting it in my journal.

It was like mud settling in a pond gone still.  Defensive and vulnerable when I started the week, I felt my body soften and my heart take a deep breath.  My aversion to people thinned and relaxed.  Issues shifted from vague discomfort to solid little pebbles with much less mass than I expected.  Pathways cleared.

My vacation contained good and bad days (or in my new vernacular, sunny and stormy mental weather), so I was able to practice not-thinking on my rapid cycling as well.  I found much comfort in the mantra “Don’t think, just feel.”

So, as I come back to the people and responsibilities in my life today, I feel refreshed and ready.  I have some changes to make and more work to do.  But I’ll try to keep it shallow.

Books I Read in 2012

I worked hard at reading this year, though flagged the last few months.  Still, I’m proud of my comparatively long list and hope to keep exercising my ECT-damaged brain in 2013.  Maybe, someday, reading will become a pleasure again instead of a chore.  One can always dream!

  1. Antonetta, Suzanne.  A Mind Apart—Travels in a Neurodiverse World.  The first bipolar memoir I read this year, and it was stunning.  Written in stream of consciousness leaps that feel like my own brain talking.  Aside from her own bipolar experience, Antonetta also explores the concept of neurodiversity, that those of us outside the “normal” spectrum of brain function actually serve the human race with our unique perspectives.
  2. Behrman, Andy.  Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania.  This book ought to be subtitled Lack of Insight.  I know this is part of the illness.  I know self-destructive behavior is a symptom.  Maybe I’m just angry because I never had the money or connections to build a diving board this big to jump off the deep end.
  3. Brown, Sandra.  Rainwater.  Brown is one of those successful, heavy-hitter romance writers, but I found this story uninspiring. During the Depression a single mother takes in a terminally ill border.  Lots of angst and ugly prejudice, but not much else.
  4. Donovan, Susan.  Not That Kind of Girl.  My mom thought I’d like this modern romance—something to read while I did my laundry.  And since I fashion myself as a purveyor of women’s porn (fan fiction), I thought I’d see how the professionals do it.  A predictable story with a spunky heroine, persistent hero and a long, slow build-up to the steamy sex scene.  Not bad for girl-porn.
  5. Fry, Stephen.  Moab is My Washtub.  Audio CD.  Okay, this was a cheat.  I listened to this brilliant autobiography instead of reading it.  But I love Stephen Fry, and I just knew his writing would be erudite, and filled with literary nuance, and—oh, yes—lots of potty humor and wicked British swears.  I was right.  And even though I didn’t have my reading disorder in my way, I still missed half of his references.  Which was fine.  His voice is golden honey (he voiced all the Harry Potter novels), and his story of growing into his homosexuality and bipolar disorder is poignant and insightful.  I don’t care that I cheated—I wouldn’t have missed this treasure for anything.
  6. Gaddam, Sai and Ogi Ogas. A Billion Wicked Thoughts—What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire.  Fascinating study done using the internet as a research tool to probe the world’s real expression of desire.
  7. Hornbacher, Marya.  Madness: A Bipolar Life.  What a shock to read that Hornbacher received electroconvulsive therapy from the same doctor who fried me.  But, she remembers it better than I do.  She tried a few more ways to kill the pain—anorexia, alcoholism, drug abuse—but her life is my life with all the roller coaster rides and dysfunction.  It’s not easy being a member of this club.
  8. Jamison, Kay Redfield.  An Unquiet Mind.  The leading researcher in bipolar disorder tells her own story.  Very interesting to get the view of one firmly entrenched in the Western medical model.  It slays me how so many of these BP memoirs are of wealthy, successful people.  Jamison was crazy as a bedbug, but still managed a mental health clinic, taught students, and vacationed in England.  Sooooo not my life.
  9. King, Stephen. 11/22/63.  Nary a monster in sight.  Not even Lee Harvey Oswald.  The villain, if anything here, is Time itself.  Well-written and engaging—as always.
  10. Lachenmeyer, Nathaniel.  The Outsider—A Journey into My Father’s Struggle with Madness.  A fascinating account of a young man’s search to understand his father, who suffered from schizophrenia and died homeless and alone.  As the author tracks his father’s life from college professor to transient, he adds glimpses of the loving dad he knew as a child.  Deft reporting with heart-wrenching personal sorrow.
  11. McGraw, Dr. Phil.  The Ultimate Weight Solution—The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom.  The right book at the right time for me.  Absolutely changed my life.  Perhaps it’s because Dr. Phil believes “self-monitoring” is the key to lasting change.  Hmmm.  Where have I heard that before?
  12. Pratchett, Terry.  The Wee Free Men.  Part of Pratchett’s hugely successful Disc World series, about a world where magic and humor rule.  I love this series, especially the books about the witches.  This time, a pre-teen witchling does battle with the Queen of the Fairies with the help of tiny, ribald, blue-skinned pictsies.  Pandemonium ensues.
  13. Smith, Hilary.  Welcome to the Jungle.  Less of a bipolar memoir than a survival manual for teens or college-aged folks just diagnosed with the illness.  Smith tackles practical matters, like how to secure a safety line when one stops taking meds against doctor’s orders (because, let’s face it, since the majority of bipolar sufferers go off their meds at some time in their lives, teens and twenty-somethings will absolutely do it).  Very reader-friendly.
  14. Sting.  Broken Music.  I love Sting’s music, so was delighted to find his memoir just as lyrical and engaging.  He creates a lovely, layered narrative that weaves together his struggle to deal with his parents’ deaths, his uncomfortable childhood, and his early success.  A beautiful book.
  15. Wiggs, Susan.  The Firebrand.  This historical romance takes place around the time of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  The heroine is an early suffragette, the hero a conservative banker.  What I liked best was the author’s ability to weave a romance between these two without compromising the heroine’s principles or zeal.  Well done and historically interesting.
  16. Wiggs, Susan.  Lakeside Cottage.  Another modern romance from my mom’s library.  This author tells a good story.  The hero saved the President from a bomb threat and has to deal with the media blitz.  He hides out at the lake, where the heroine is vacationing with her special needs son and recovering from losing her job.  Too much talking during the sex scenes, though—there is a point where conversation must cease!

Books I Couldn’t Finish

Most of the books I start, I can’t finish.  It’s the nature of my particular reading disability (thank you, ECT).  My eyes go jiggy, or something in the text jump-starts my anxiety, or the print is too small and feral.  But, sometimes I don’t finish a book just because I don’t like it.  Those are the ones I want to list.  And since I didn’t think about doing this until October, the list will be short (I hope).

  1. Fisher, Carrie.  The Best Awful.  I so wanted to enjoy this book.  I love Carrie Fisher’s humor.  And I have dreams of writing a novel with a bipolar heroine, so I thought this would be a great example of how that might be done.  Maybe I’ve read too many bipolar memoirs.  Maybe I’ve gotten intolerant and self-righteous about how hard one must work to manage a mental illness.  Whatever the reason, I could not stand the protagonist.  She’s just another self-indulgent, rich and pampered crazy person without a smidge of insight.  Boring.
  2. Martin, Michael A. and Andy Mangeles.  Star Trek Enterprise: Kobayashi Maru.  This is the writing team sanctioned to author most, if not all, the Star Trek: Enterprise novels for Pocket Books.  And it burns my ass.  While they’re great at getting the historical facts of the show correct, they stink at capturing the characters.  And their run-on sentences make me throw their novels across the room in frustration.  Repeatedly.  I gave up on this one when T’Pol and Malcolm strayed so far off-character I couldn’t suspend my disbelief any further.  Clearly, I could do a better job.  Hrumph!
  3. Walker, Alice. Anything We Love Can Be Saved.  I know Alice Walker is a national treasure.  Her work is true literature.  This book of essays is focused on her activism.  Like politics, activism makes me uncomfortable.  While I believe strongly in working for a better world, a fairer world, a healthier world, most activists I’ve met or read scare me.  The gleam is a little too bright in their eyes; the words a bit too angry.  This is one of those books.
  4. Cameron, Julia.  God is Not a Laughing Matter.  The author of The Artists’ Way talks about her spiritual path and offers exercises and journaling questions to help others do the same.  Unfortunately, she bashes meditation and vegetarianism (guess she had some experiences with “extremists”), which completely turned me off.  I love her books on creativity, but this one is defensive and fearful.  A huge disappointment.

Count the Blessings

I’ve been down with an intestinal flu the last couple of days.  Nothing to do but watch movies, drink ginger ale and ponder the year that’s about to end.  But pondering can be a dangerous exercise, especially when I’m sick and in the middle of an episode.  I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to give too much attention to the thoughts that swirl up then.  Too much darkness, too much regret, too much grief.  So instead, I’ll focus on a few of the blessings 2011 brought me.

A place to sell my art cards.  My last visit at The Perfect Setting was disappointing compared to all the other times I’ve sold my cards there.  Pam, the owner, placed another employee in charge of the greeting cards.  This person pulled a couple of mine as “inappropriate”.  It seems she and I don’t share the same sense of humor.  So, Pam bought only half of the bunch I brought in this time instead of all of them.

Even though I know better, I took it very personally.  I know every shop has to make careful selection and cater to the clientele, but it surprised me since Pam always seemed to love everything I brought in.  Every artist has to tailor their work to fit the market—I know and understand this.  It just caught me on a very bad day, and I haven’t been able to sit at my studio table since.

This isn’t sounding much like gratitude.  But I am extremely grateful to Pam for taking a chance with my work.  She hung my weird collages even though no one in Marshalltown will ever buy them.  She bought all my cards, even when her other employees raised eyebrows.  She let me be the square peg in the town’s round hole—no one else here has ever done that for me.  Yes, I’m grateful.  And eventually, I’ll start making more of the cards that the town will accept—along with a few naughty ones.

Healing.  This year I learned how to manage without psychotropic medication.  I developed my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training guidelines.  I graduated from the Silver Sneakers water exercise class to the deep water, high-powered, water aerobics class.  I pushed the envelope of my reading disability and actually finished eleven whole books this year.  I’m learning how to be a woman alone without being lonely all the time.  I’ve moved past my fear of cooking and can now fix supper for myself every night.  I’ve started again on the weight loss journey, losing 12 pounds since my visit with the allergist at the beginning of December.

It’s an important practice to remember all the healing this year brought, all the hard work and dedication I put into it.  The illness always grabs center stage.  The loss of Will, the scrambled routine, the swamping thoughts tear down self-worth and confidence.  It’s so easy to see only failure.  So, remembering the success and joy play a vital part in bringing reality back to true.

Saying Good-bye to my dad on my terms.  I am deeply grateful that I was able to spend so much time with my dad in his final days and participate in his funeral in a meaningful way.  It was a gift.  Just as easily, my illness might have flared like it did this past Christmas, incapacitating me and keeping me from any human interaction.  Frankly, I expected to be a nut case during my dad’s rituals, and the stress did eventually cause an episode.  But I was fully there when I most wanted to be.  A miracle.  A prayer answered.

These are just a few of the gifts the Heart of the Universe placed in my lap this year.  What treasures did you receive?

Books I Read in 2011

It’s a short list, but I’m thrilled that I’ve tackled some “adult” novels and non-fiction.  I’m also finding that Juveniles rarely hold my attention, even though they’re easier for my ECT-fried brain to digest.  I just end up wanting to slap those pouty, whiny teenagers silly.  Oh, well.

I didn’t include all the books I started and stopped.  Lots of those.

Hoping to get even more books read in 2012!

  1. Greene, Bob. The Life You Want.  Oprah’s body guru on fitness, weight loss and “happiness.”  Some good stuff.  Nothing you haven’t heard before.
  2. King, Stephen. Full Dark, No Stars.  Four novellas.  Excellent King.
  3. Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Wow.  The movie of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was my introduction to Larsson, and I had to try to read the books.  To my delight, this book slipped through my reading disability like water.  Love the protagonist.  Love the setting.  Love the bad guys.  Love it all.  Must have more!
  4. Martin, George R.R. Wild Cards, Book One.  Shared universe anthology about folks in the 1950-1960’s with genetic mutations—the making of superheroes and supervillans.  Interesting.
  5. Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight.  Okay, okay, I succumbed.  In my quest to read juvenile books, I had to see what all the fuss was about.  I must say I liked the book’s clumsy, sweet Bella much better than the wooden, petulant actroid that played her in the movies.  But, there was w-a-y too many longing looks and brushing of the lips with cold fingers.  Even for me, the Heaving Bosom Queen.
  6. Oates, Joyce Carol.  We Were the Mulvaneys.  Set in the 1970s, this is an amazing study of the disintegration of a strong family after the daughter’s assault.
  7. Ouspensky, P.D. The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution.  These are transcripts of five lectures that outline the Gurdjieffian method of raising consciousness and spiritual development.  If you dig spiritual evolution, an interesting read.
  8. Pullman, Philip.  The Golden Compass.  The first book on my list of “Juveniles”.  I loved the world Pullman created—so much like Earth, but with interesting differences.  There are two more books in the series.  I’ll probably read the next one.
  9. Rubin, Gretchen.  The Happiness Project.  So-so memoir by a whiny New Yorker trying to cultivate gratitude.  She does offer some good ideas, though.
  10. Shpano, Noam. The Good Psychologist. Interesting protagonist, interesting psychology.
  11. Smith, Dean Wesley and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Enterprise: By the Book.  One of the early novels based on the Star Trek: Enterprise series.  A good plot.  Interesting for this Trekker to see how the characters are handled when no one knew them very well yet.

Return of the Bad-Ass

This morning I got up on the good side of the bed.  And I didn’t even know I had one.

Life in general is taking a turn.  Our family is slowly finding a new rhythm without Dad.  My incision hurts less all the time and water aerobics is morphing back into something enjoyable instead of torture.  I have a plan for combating the respiratory infections that have plagued me the last couple of years.  My bipolar disorder is quiet for the time being.  And my new doc planted some motivational seeds to take up the weight loss banner.  Again.

It’s the return of the Bipolar Bad-Ass.  Thank the stars!  It’s been a couple of months since I felt this strong and clear with some sense of direction and the energy to follow through.  I quit whining about not having the perfect coffee shop to do my word smithing and planted myself at Muddy Waters.  This is where I first started writing again after my bipolar collapse.  The folks there know me, welcome me and treat me well.

I checked out two juvenile books at the library, on the recommendation of my friend, Joa, the Children’s Librarian, and put my name on the waiting list for Stephen King’s new book.  My ECT-fried brain is a lot like my stiff arm after surgery.  The muscles and skin ache and resist stretching, but they have to be worked in order to function.  I haven’t read anything in awhile, and I need to.  It’s part of my Training.

I pulled out my calorie counter, Clean Eating magazines, food journal and started paying attention to my intake again. Hearing Dr. Brown say “I know it’s hard, but you have to do it anyway” felt good.  I needed to hear that the obstacles in my way don’t really matter—the obsessive compulsive behavior, the fears, the wanting.  They are serious, and they are real, but I have to find a way to set them aside.  At this moment, I’m determined to lose 20 pounds (Yikes!  Did I say that out loud?).  I don’t know how long that will take, but there it is—my starting goal.  In black and white.

Of course, my mood will shift.  The depression will waft back in and blow my resolve.  But, I’m going to try to keep focus during the next episode.  And if I can’t manage that, I’ll try to get back to Bad-Ass Training sooner rather than later.  But, today is what I have, and today I’m in Training.  Today, the Bitch is Back.

Bipolar Bad-Ass Training, Revised—Part 2

The area I revised most in my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training after reading Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, was in Securing Down Time.  Rubin’s book showed me there’s lots more I might be doing to Fill My Well between battles.

I always loved the idea of Artists’ Dates, a practice Julia Cameron promotes as part of The Artists’ Way.  It’s a date with yourself, taken alone, to indulge your artistic and playful side.  It might be a trip to the zoo, if you love animals, or a stroll through a beautiful garden, or wandering through a toy store to find a box of 64 crayons just like the one you had when you were eight years old.

I’d gotten out of the habit of taking an Artist Date, and my playtime had gotten noticeably grim.  I go to movies, but only if I can smuggle in a can of pop from home to save money.  I go to Barnes and Noble, but only to read the art and crafting magazines, never to buy one.  My life has become governed by my checking account balance.

So, I’m determined to find new ways to tickle my fancy and get the creative juices flowing.  One thing I want to do is read more poetry.  I love poetry, but have never sought it out.  This weekend I checked out a collection by Mary Oliver.  It’s breathtaking and sumptuous.  Why didn’t I think of this before?

Another quest is to read more children’s literature.  Since reading is difficult for me, Kidlit ought to be a bit easier and, therefore, more enjoyable.  I’ve started a list to take with me to the library—The Golden Compass and books by Elizabeth Enright and E.L. Konisberg.  I’m actually looking forward to reading these books instead of dreading a task that’s “good for me.”

As a person of bipolar persuasion, cheerfulness can be suspect.  Glee is just downright symptomatic.  So, I’ve grown accustom to tamping down any giddiness just as I’ve learned to throw a net under feelings of melancholy and pensiveness.  The result is that I don’t foster cheerfulness, which is just not a way I want to live.  I want to laugh more, even if its only between episodes.  So, I need to hit websites like I Can Has Cheeseburgers and hang out more with my friends Matt and Jeff—sure-fire ways to laugh until I choke.  I need to celebrate my good days between episodes, share them, revel in them, create some kind of goofy tradition to mark those too-few moments.  I’m still noodling on that one.

Another thing that Fills My Well is being outdoors, but I hardly spend any time there at all.  I used to take walks in the old town cemetery and drive out to the corn and bean fields around town, but haven’t in a long time.  This past Labor Day I went to a big park and ate lunch in the sunshine.  I knew it was good for me, but I was depressed at the time and only felt lonely, which soured me on trying again.  I need to find new places outside to claim as my own, maybe places where I can sketch, or take walks—something.

What Fills Your Well will be different from what fills mine.  I hope you take a moment today to consider what would trip your trigger.  What kinds of things did you like when you were a kid?  What did you love to do?  Could you try those things on again?  Are there things you’d like to try if only…?  What’s stopping you?  And if the answer to that is being bipolar or in other ways challenged with mental illness, think again.  It might not be the barrier you think it is.  It might be something you can hop over on your way to glee.

Bipolar Bad-Ass Training, Revised—Part 1

Never get Too Tired, Too Hungry or Too Rigid.  That’s one of my new mottos (Another is Laugh ’til You Lose Urine, but that’s a different post).  So in my quest to avoid rigor mortis, I’ve incorporated a few of Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts and ideas into my personal Bipolar Bad-Ass Training Regimen.

It’s been six months since I first set up some guidelines for making the best of my time between bipolar episodes.  Those checklists and goals have served me really well, but there’s always room for improvement.  Plus, our needs and priorities change, and I don’t want to be stuck hanging on to an old ideal when it no longer fits.  That way lies madness and a surplus of guilt and shame.  Pass.

Clean Eating is still a big priority for me, and continues to be elusive.  I feel like I’ve come a long way in fostering my Will, but bipolar episodes and my recent illness threw me right back into compulsive behavior, which starts and ends with non-stop eating of the worst possible crap.  There’s no easy answer to this one, I’m afraid, just awareness and diligence and gentleness.

My thoughts and plans for Strength and Stamina still hold true.  If anything, I’m more determined than ever to exercise every day and add more activity to my daily life.  I also have a physical tomorrow, so I made a list of things to discuss with my doc—how to deal with this persistent recurring bronchitis (allergy testing?), removing a benign but growing cyst in my armpit, and getting the regular blood work and tests out of the way.  It’s part of Doing What Needs To Be Done (another motto).

When I looked at my priorities, I found I needed to make an adjustment.  I always thought I’d go back to school for a Master’s Degree, but it’s just not realistic for me anymore.  My ECT—induced reading disability seems to be holding fast and my financial situation hardly supports a return to college.  It was an old dream that just doesn’t fit who I am now.

My priorities now are Writing, Making Art and Growing.  My goals are to finish my novel, Callinda, by the end of the year and continue to blog at least every other day; make art every day and start drawing again.  As for continuing to grow, I’ve got a couple of things in mind.  I want to call the Animal Rescue League and see if I could volunteer a little bit.  I’m curious about other writers who love fan fiction and plan to research that.  Maybe I’ll find a kindred spirit or two.  I plan to spend more time at the public library, reading magazines I would never normally pick up.  I want to start at the beginning of the racks and work my way through them all.  I can’t wait to soak up all that new stimulation.  And lastly, I want to find a local chapter of the Sweet Adelines.  I miss singing, and maybe they’d take a croaky alto.  We’ll see.

One thing Gretchen Rubin did to keep her accountable to her new resolutions was to create a chart where she could track her daily activities.  She said the steady reminders kept her focused and the gold stars and check marks as she accomplished her goals kept her motivated.  I don’t know that I need more motivation than living saner, but I thought I’d try tracking my progress.  I loaded up my new iCalendar program so I can see at a glance what I’m doing and what I’m avoiding.  Meh.  We’ll see if the motivation outweighs the nuisance.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 27

I grew up with a Carnegie library—beautiful, but tiny.  While I lived in Minnesota, renovations made the old library handicap accessible.  Later, it sprouted a modern edition.  But, the old work horse just couldn’t keep pace with the coming 21st century and the demands of a town growing more and more multi-lingual.

The new public library opened a couple of years after I’d moved back to town.  It won awards for its green design.  Natural prairie grows on the boulevard instead of the standard lawn (much to the disgust of farmers who spent years spraying their fields to kill those native plants).  The stacks, the public computers, the children’s section, the meeting and study rooms all sit on one floor instead of the maze of half-floors and spiral staircases of the old library.  It’s light and airy with endless windows and lots of comfy furniture for study or relaxation with a good magazine.

I live a block away and go there all the time.  As a former bookstore manager and bibliophile, the new library helped me transition from book buyer to book borrower now that books are no longer in my budget.  And as someone with a reading disability, I appreciate the freedom to check books out that look good, but end up being too difficult.  I can just take them back and try others.  And if I hear about a book our library doesn’t have, I can request a loan from our sister libraries across the state.  Sometimes, the services seem too good to be true.

If you haven’t been to your local library in a while, go.  You’ll be surprised at what you’re missing.  And like every other government service, the libraries are in danger of disappearing.  Don’t let that happen.  Books open minds, and those minds are our future.

The D Word

For a while yesterday, I wanted to die.

The depression, the poverty, the constant, never-ending struggle to simply exist was too much.  All I could see was want, loneliness, misunderstanding and pain that my fantasizing would never change.  Jumping around in the water, scribbling little stories, pasting pieces of paper together, starting book after book only to set them back down just marked time while my life tick-tocked by.  Death would be such a relief.

For someone who is bipolar, this thought is a marker.  It’s not the same as wanting to commit suicide.  And it’s still distant to developing a plan to commit suicide.  Nevertheless, thoughts of death signal a serious turn in the depression.

I stayed with those thoughts long enough to write them all out in my journal.  As soon as I actually wrote the “D” word, actually admitted to feeling that lost and desperate, I surrendered to my training.

This is what training is for.  It kicks in without conscious thought.  It’s habit, so deeply ingrained that it runs automatically.

I mopped up my tears, finished my coffee and went home.  I gathered together some old pictures and took them to Minute Man to get copied.  I bought refills for my ink pens and furniture polish.  I picked up my new glasses.  I stood outside and lifted my face to the warm sun, let myself feel the mild breeze.  I glued borders around Nancy’s collages.  I made two cards.  For the rest of the day, I distracted my brain from the hopelessness.

And in the evening I told my Bipolar Buddy that I had thought about dying.  My friend Cheryl is my Bipolar Buddy.  Three years ago, after I tried to kill myself, I promised Cheryl that I would always tell her if thoughts of death ever came back.  I’m accountable to her.  I’m honest about my thoughts, and she witnesses—that’s our agreement.

In the past, I would have called my mental health clinic.  My therapist would have called my psychiatrist, who would have sent me to a hospital where medications would have been adjusted or changed, thus starting a four to eight week period of confusion and fog-brain while my brain and body adapted to the new drugs.

It was never the drugs that made me better, it was the slap of being hospitalized, the challenge to my distorted thinking that pulled me from the edge.  So, I learned to challenge my own thinking.  Once I realized the medications actually made my symptoms worse and I was able to wean off them, I became even more able to see the distortions.  I’ve not had thoughts of death for a long time, but it’s part of the illness.  They had to come back around sooner or later.

I’m better this morning—not great, but better.  Thoughts about my life being pointless still crowd me from behind, but I’m not entertaining them.  What I will do today is trust my training.

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