The Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness. Next to health and wealth, it’s one of the most commonly-sought, yet elusive, goals in our society. Stressed out by work, children, elderly parents, finances, and more, we wonder how we can even find the time to be happy. The two books I’m going to recommend today both purport to hold the key to happiness and, while they differ markedly in tone and content, their core ideas both centre around finding and holding onto the things that matter to you over those that don’t.

The Year of Living DanishlyLast weekend I had the joy of travelling to Copenhagen. The Danes are ranked among the happiest people on earth, and it was no surprise when I took in the cycles strewn about the city (seriously, no one seems to lock their bikes up), the leisurely meals on patios outside restaurants (complete with blankets and heat lamps), and the clean, minimalist design (our hotel room was small, but the space was used so efficiently). As often happens after I’ve gone on holiday, I came home eager to seek out information on my new favourite country, and that’s how I came across Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly. After her husband, an inveterate Lego fan, was offered his dream job working for the toy company itself, Russell, a journalist who was, at the time, working long hours and dreaming of retirement, decided to use the opportunity to seek out the clues to the Danes’ famous happiness. For each month of the subsequent year she learned about a particular aspect of Danish culture and life that might help explain the phenomenon, including, but not limited to, their famed minimalist interior design, their solid social welfare system, and the concept of hygge.

Part travel diary, part self-help book, The Year of Living Danishly is a funny, honest look not only at what it’s like to be an immigrant but also at what it means to live life to the fullest.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpWhile minimalism is only one aspect of Danish life that Russell attributes their happiness to, it is the core of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Minimalism and decluttering are often associated the act of finding things to get rid of, but in contrast Kondo focusses not on choosing what to discard, but on choosing what to hold onto. She uses the phrase ‘spark joy’ to describe the way the things you retain should make you feel. Paring down your possessions, Kondo asserts, will not only provide you with a calm home but also encourage you to take the same approach to life, placing your own joy at the centre of decision-making.

Kondo’s advice to only keep books you have read and loved will probably make most book nerds cringe, but it’s worth considering in conjunction with her advice to only hold onto things that ‘spark joy’. For many bookish types, unread books do spark joy, holding between their covers infinite possibilities and promising excitement and pleasure when we do get the chance to read them. So many readers get stressed by the size of their TBRs and anxious about all the books they haven’t read. If this is you, then your TBR is not bringing you the joy it should. You know what I’m talking about: The excitement of running your finger along the spines, tugging one book out only to replace it because it’s not quite what you’re feeling right now, only to slide out another and curl up on the sofa with it, ready to tumble into the world held in its pages. This is a vital part of living joyfully for me, and so I interpret Kondo’s advice a little differently. If I pick up a book on my TBR and feel excited about reading it, then it belongs on my shelf. If I can’t even remember why I bought it, then it goes in the donation bin. Because Kondo emphasises holding onto things that make you happy, you’re free to interpret her other advice based on what does and does not make you, as an individual, happy.

Do either of these books hold the secret to lifelong happiness? Perhaps they do, and perhaps they don’t. But The Year of Living Danishly was a tremendously enjoyable read and, while I have yet to entirely tidy my home according to Marie Kondo’s advice, I haven’t been assaulted by the Tupperware Tower of Terror that used to lurk in the kitchen cabinet in months, and both of those things most definitely make me happy.

Nicola’s wanderlust has found her in a tiny apartment in Edinburgh, where minimalism and tidiness are essential to keep her happy.

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Wild

12262741I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure if I should pick Wild up. I hated Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer with a fiery passion and people kept saying this was the “girl version.” I guess you could say that it was the “girl version” comment that both attracted and repulsed me at the same time. On the one hand, I hate Into the Wild for a dozen reasons that I didn’t want to see replicated in Wild, or any book ever again. But on the other, calling anything the “girl version” of anything else makes me mad; things that women do aren’t “girl versions” of what men do, they’re their own damn thing. So I picked Wild up to spite Into the Wild. No one said I was mature. 

If you don’t know anything about the book, or the film, Wild is the story of how Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail — on the surface anyway. If you read this because you’re looking for a book about the PCT, you should probably not read it. This is a memoir about loss and making big, big mistakes. There are lots of flashbacks to Cheryl’s pre-trail past. So if you’re looking for a trail focused book, or a book that’s really all about hiking or backpacking, this isn’t it. 

For me, the story was more about how Cheryl Strayed put herself back together after a series of events with which I felt intimately familiar. That is not to say that my life has been like Strayed’s, because decidedly, it has not. But there were enough significant intersections that I was very moved by Wild.

One of the primary reasons that Strayed decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail was that after her mother’s death her life fell apart– she fell apart. Her mother had been her center and without her she crumbled (this I identify with a little too much, losing my mother is my biggest fear. Also, HI MAMA!!). Her marriage fell apart, she experimented with heroin for a period of time, and she made some really bad choices about men. These are the places where I could see the overlap between her life and mine. My drug of choice wasn’t heroin, and it was my dad that died, but the bad choices about men and many of the themes surrounding all three were similar for me.

I love the idea of hiking the PCT, though frankly, I don’t have any desire to do it. That is because I am 33 and less exciting than I used to be. But if I’d picked this book up the year my dad died instead of Eat, Pray, Love (which I realize I could not have done, given that it had not been published yet), I would have left immediately. I wanted to leave immediately after reading Eat, Pray, Love, but I didn’t have the resources to do so. I think I would have hiked the PCT though, I really do.

Though I hope I would have prepared a bit more than Strayed did when she left home. The main tension of the book is that Cheryl was woefully unprepared to start a thousand mile hike through the mountains. In scenario after scenario she finds herself without the crucial knowledge or physical prowess to safely keep going, but she keeps going anyway. This is probably what reminds people of Into the Wild, but thank God, we know by virtue of the fact that Strayed herself is telling the story instead of Jon Krakauer that she made it. The adventure of it all was pretty amazing, but I know this aspect irritated a lot of people and I don’t fault them for it. Respect nature. Please. 

So, if you’re not already predisposed to want to read Wild, why should you pick it up? Well, first of all, I think that kind of like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and its ilk, it’s a travel memoir with a heart of suffering and subsequent healing. If you have been in a rough spot lately, I think reading this could help you. If you have been suffering, you need to read books about wholehearted people who also have suffered and did the work to heal. You don’t need to read books about perfect people going on well planned hikes, you need to read books about people who’ve messed up big and worked hard to figure out how to stop messing up.

If you’re not in that position, I think you might enjoy the fact that it’s a giant adventure. It kills me to say this, because I have a practically irrational hatred for Into the Wild, but I think if you like that book, you’ll like this one. Unless the thing you liked about Into the Wild was Chris McCandless dying……. Cheryl lives, but she has the same kind of rambling adventure McCandless has before his fatal mistakes in Alaska.

I’d like to take a minute before I go to address this genre in general. I read a lot of reviews and one of the big complaints I hear about books like Wild  are that they are “whiny” and that the women who write them are self-absorbed white ladies, unaware of their privilege. And sure, that’s true sometimes, but one of the things I think about in terms of memoir is that it so often examines a particularly difficult period in someone’s life incredibly intimately, and that can be ugly sometimes. Memoir isn’t presented as an opportunity for congratulations or giving advice, typically.

A lot of the negative Goodreads reviews about this book seem very angry that Strayed dared to leave her “perfectly good” husband and shame her for making mistakes like doing drugs and being promiscuous. There seemed to be a pervasive concern that Cheryl “doesn’t care” about any of it and that she isn’t tough enough on herself about all the ways she’s messed up. My perspective was that it was exactly the opposite. She cared so much that she hiked the PCT unprepared to break herself from continuing on the unhealthy path she was on. She didn’t know how to stop, so she did something extreme that she wasn’t truly prepared to do.

This is the story of how that happened, not a treatise on how to hike the PCT or advice about how to get over a parent’s death or a divorce or even heroin. If you’ve ever read Strayed’s column Dear Sugar, you know this isn’t how she gives advice. Wild is about Cheryl Strayed trying to find a way back to the person she most wanted to be. So please don’t pick up this book unless you want to hear that story.

Allison Carr Waechter is looking forward to her next off-the-grid adventure in just one week!


How to Know How to Grow Up

22521549Typically, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. But as you’ll remember from a post I wrote a few weeks ago, I have a weakness for advice-giving self-helpish types of books. At the time, I was reading How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea. As things often go when I read non-fiction, I took some breaks to read new fiction I was excited about. Long story short, I finished How to Grow Up this week and I want to recommend it because I thought it was so good, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how to go about doing that.

Of course I’m going to give it a shot. That’s why we’re both here, right? Let’s start with the basics:

Michelle Tea is a writer and an incredibly impressive person, especially given the circumstances under which her prolific creative work has been produced, and How to Grow Up showcases a lot of that. The book is a series of essays that chronicles a lot of how Tea worked with, through and around a lot of “life stuff” to become someone with a stable life. I think the Goodreads blurb gives you most of the basic info you need to know:  

As an aspiring young writer in San Francisco, Michelle Tea lived in a scuzzy communal house; she drank, smoked, snorted anything she got her hands on; she toiled for the minimum wage; and she dated men and women, and sometimes both at once. But between hangovers and dead-end jobs, she scrawled in notebooks and organized dive bar poetry readings, working to make her literary dreams real.

In How to Grow Up, Tea shares her awkward stumble towards the life of a Bonafide Grown-Up: healthy, responsible, self-aware, stable. She writes about passion, about her fraught relationship with money, about adoring Barney’s while shopping at thrift stores, about breakups and the fertile ground between relationships, about roommates and rent, and about being superstitious (“why not, it imbues this harsh world of ours with a bit of magic.”)  At once heartwarming and darkly comic, How to Grow Up proves that the road less traveled may be a difficult one, but if you embrace life’s uncertainty and dust yourself off after every screw up, slowly but surely you just might make it to adulthood.

It’s probably not surprising to anyone that someone with Tea’s creative ability has had some wild (and sometimes sordid) adventures; I think we all assume that a certain sect of creative folk delve into life’s dark spots and create from there. So you could read Tea’s memoir and enjoy it a lot from the point of view of someone who hasn’t ever experienced anything like that. I definitely think that’s possible. Tea is a talented writer and I think almost anyone would find her writing moving and interesting.

That’s not the place I read this book from though. I read this book as a girl with a dark past of her own –one with some low, low places in it. I’m not in those places anymore, but I’m not quite where Tea is either (Bonafide Grown-Up is still a ways up the road for me). Tea has a few years on me though and reading this was like listening to a big sister, a soul sister tell me how it gets better.

I don’t need to get into the ways in which my twenties were all messed up here, but I’ll say that they were not nearly as wild as Tea’s, but a lot darker than average (at least from what I can tell). As someone who is (on the outside) a high-functioning adult, but who is still dealing with all the complexities that a decade of messy living creates, Tea’s stories made me laugh, cry, and murmur “yes!” “exactly” and “I’ll get there.”

The chapters in which Tea describes her romantic relationships especially resonated with me. I have that person in my past that I loved desperately, but that was incredibly bad for me. Like Tea, I couldn’t figure out why if we loved each other so damn much we couldn’t stop fighting (believe me, I know now). And similarly, I’m lucky enough to have had that shining moment where I found the person who could be my still point when everything is out of control and I am grateful beyond measure for the happy life we have together.

Tea’s chapters about inadvertently putting together a career during dark times, simply by working hard at what she loved, made sense to me too. Chipping away at things, even when I could barely get out of bed has always been my thing. I found Tea’s resilience inspiring, but my resilience inspires me too. Honestly, How to Grow Up was an affirmation for me that there are other people out there with brains as messy as my own who make it, who pick themselves up and keep going and that there’s an end result to that work that doesn’t involve running out of energy to keep going. Tea’s life may not be perfect, but she’s learned to love herself and that’s something radically awesome for any woman.

So I want to say this: if you are a girl who has a dark past and a messy brain, who makes lots of mistakes, who loves Stevie Nicks, who reads tarot and her horoscope, who believes in creativity, who believes kindness is a critical life skill, who always feels a little outside what’s normal… This book is totally for you. No matter where you’re at in cleaning up your mess, Michelle Tea can make you feel like you can do it.

You can do it.

Allison Carr Waechter is still here and that’s an accomplishment in itself. Holler if you need something.


The Shape of Grief: H is for Hawk

18803640As the year opens up into Spring, days grow longer and brighter and I travel the same path of memories I have since 2006, the year my father died. In the middle of the world’s great blooming, something in me dies over and over. It’s possible that reading H is for Hawk in the midst of this yearly journey was not a good idea, or maybe it was the best idea. It’s hard to say, because with grief, it’s always hard to know what’s best.

Helen Macdonald’s intensely unique memoir has garnered rave reviews, just Google and you will find that every major review publication is falling over itself to discuss the book that won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and is the Costa Book of the Year. I am no different, I want to urge you to read the book as well, you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise.

Macdonald’s memoir takes us through the months after her beloved father’s sudden death. There are moments in the book that are so profoundly sad and true for a half-orphaned child, whose father was taken before his time, that I found tears streaming down my face almost hourly as I read. Macdonald is able to put grief into words in ways I scarcely imagined possible; my own father’s death brings up such complicated emotions I often have trouble speaking coherently about it. But Macdonald is precise:

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

Most reviews I’ve read focus on the novelty of Macdonald’s coping mechanism, training a goshawk, and indeed, the story is mesmerizing. Macdonald has a lifetime of experience with hawking, but her training with Mabel (the goshawk) is different, because it is colored with grief. Still, the story is dazzling, in its shades of wildness and the depths of Macdonald’s feeling for the hawk, for the loss she feels, for the land she traverses with Mabel. Her descriptions of land and beast are gorgeous, such as the moment she sees Mabel for the first time:

My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

Yet, for me, the book’s real strength was its challenging and sometimes frustrating narrative style. Macdonald’s love for hawking grew at a young age and she spent the years many girls spend in love with horses, obsessed with birds. She pored over books about falconry, and the work of T.H. White stood out to her. She loved The Sword and the Stone, but was equal parts in love with and outraged by White’s account of his own disastrous experience training a goshawk.

Macdonald’s nature as a historian and researcher weaves a complicated pattern into her memoir; interspersed with her own story is an acutely researched account of White’s life and his experience with the goshawk he most often called “Gos” (though we learn White had several other names for him). Macdonald’s feelings about White’s times with Gos are fraught with frustration and love, she sees that he abused the bird, if unintentionally and the story of White’s experience in no way parallels her time with Mabel.

In fact, Macdonald’s experience training Mabel is a stark contrast for White’s, her patience evokes trust and a kind of wild love from her bird, while White fails miserably. I admit to being disturbed by Macdonald’s portrayal of White. At first I was very sympathetic, White came from a terribly abusive home and fought against his sadomasochistic urges his whole life, with the additional stress of being a closeted homosexual in the 1930s. White’s story is so deeply tragic it’s difficult not to feel sorry for him, until Macdonald begins delivering the story of Gos, and then my heart hardened. The way he treated the bird is so cruel and wrought with the signs of abuse I could hardly read on.

I was frustrated by Macdonald’s inclusion of White’s story, and the fact that she made it so intimately interwoven with her own, for about half the book. Then, somewhere in the second third of the book, it fell into place. It didn’t matter if I liked White or not, something about his life and her experience with his work meant something to her, something so deeply important that I payed attention in a different way. I’m reminded of the things I focused on, even obsessed over, after my father died and I understand. It makes sense in respect of the story, but its inclusion in the memoir makes sense to me on a deeper level now that I’m finished with the book.

I’d rather not say more about this, or the result of Macdonald’s training with Mabel. I’ll leave you to find out on your own. Know that this is a challenging memoir. Macdonald shifts tenses and perspectives without warning. It’s jarring at first, but meaningful. Those experienced with grief and isolation will recognize that Macdonald has skillfully reproduced the ways in which a grief-stricken mind melts from one thing into another with confusing ease.

This isn’t a book for a pleasant afternoon, nor would I recommend reading it over a prolonged period of time. I think to get the most of out of it, give yourself a week with it, or maybe three or four days. Usually I like to read non-fiction slowly, but I found with this I wanted to keep moving. Read this book knowing that it’s bound to make you feel things a bit more deeply than perhaps you’d like and that you’re almost certainly going to think training a hawk might be good for you at least once.

Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, a teacher and a perpetual student. She’s on Spring Break this week, tweet at her


Without Weakness: Lessons in Taxidermy

I’m of the mindset that if you’re a woman and you’re talking about a health condition you’re facing, it’s legit. See, I’m not saying men don’t get sick. I’m just saying that women, cis and trans, have a ton more stuff to deal with when it comes to our bodies than (cis) men. We’ve had to deal with monthly visitors or constant scrutiny about the correct way/s to be in our bodies our whole lives. So, when a woman talks about health stuff, I listen. If the health concerns have gotten to the point where a woman is talking about them, I believe. I also believe it’s probably even worse than she says it is. Which is where this book recommendation comes in.Lessons in Taxidermy

Lessons in Taxidermy by Bee Lavender is an autobiographical account of all the disabling health issues (cancer, mysterious illnesses, car accidents) Lavender faced throughout her life – but it’s no woe-is-me story, which is why it’s so great. It’s a matter-of-fact recounting of what her body has done to itself and to her, without romanticizing. It’s the pus and blood that I miss when I read memoirs about illness. There are no fainting couches in this true-life tale. (But sometimes I felt like I needed one – that, or a Xanax.)

What’s even better about this book is that Lavender herself is aware of the trope of the noble sick woman and refuses to tell her story that way. She doesn’t have the privilege of being cared for by others who are working hard and still struggling to cover the costs of her medical care, so she takes care of herself. She shows her ugly parts, too, and the ugly parts of where she grew up. It’s empowering to hear the dyed hair, thrift-store version that doesn’t descend into all the stereotypes those things connote. There are no manic pixie dream girls in this book. Just family, chosen and otherwise, and how everything can come together even when you fall apart.

Don’t be mistaken: Lessons in Taxidermy is not for the faint of heart. I had to take breaks and go stare at myself in my bathroom mirror while thinking, “I am okay, I am okay, I am okay.” My already palpable daily anxiety increased with every new affliction outlined in the book. I hugged my family. Hard. Which is absolutely, definitely the whole point of the book: live the way you can with what you have. There is nothing else that matters.

Excuse me while I sob the tears of joy and empathy at being well, right now. Well enough to write this. Well enough to know what it’s like not to be.

Jenny Rose Ryan is a writer, editor, marathoner, mother, gardener, baker, do-er, who waits for the first day she can hang the sheets on the line. Her work has appeared in BUST, Bitch, XOJane, and some other places she can’t remember right now. She’s trying to get back into writing poetry and has abandoned all public social media.