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.


How to Grow Up: A History of Advice Giving Memoirs

I have a confession to make: I like to read self-help books from time to time. Not the kind necessarily that straight up tell you how to live, but the kind that blend memoir with advice. There’s something about that mix that I find indulgent, entertaining and gratifying.

Up front, I’ll tell you that almost every one of the books I’m about to mention has a significant similarity: white women, some who started out with a lot of privilege, some who didn’t, are telling us about their lives. Most are writing from a current place of privilege that most of their readers can’t and won’t ever experience. I need to explain that I don’t necessarily view these books as “guides to life” but somewhat voyeuristic reading experiences that sometimes drop nuggets of wisdom. I am a naturally nosy person and I love to give advice, so I get a little thrill out of reading books like this.

Now that we’ve established that, for me, reading these types of books is something of a guilty pleasure, let me also say that I think reading advice giving nonfiction can be really helpful. In each one of these books I’ve found something that touched me and changed the way I thought about certain important aspects of my life. I’ve also discarded a lot of the problematic and unhelpful (to me) advice and chalked that up to being symptomatic of giving a human being an entire book to talk about their opinions.

So I urge you to take my list with a tiny grain of salt and take this advice (I told you I love to give advice!): reading an advice giving memoir from time to time can be fun and satisfying. Reading how other people think things through and solve problems can be interesting. These have been my favorites over the past few years, in somewhat chronological order:

1089140The Goddess Guide, by Gisele Scanlon. I don’t even know how I found this book, but is by far the most indulgent one on this list. Scanlon is something of a journalist/artist/beauty guru. She’s had about a million experiences none of us will ever have and this book is the gorgeously put together evidence of this. The cover is an experience in itself and the photos and illustrations are lush and gorgeous.

What did I get out of it? Lots of nearly invaluable fashion and beauty advice. Also: lots of longing for stuff I can’t have because it’s insanely expensive. However, I did discover one of my favorite perfumes (For Her, by Narcisco Rodriguez) and learned some valuable stuff about how to develop personal style. I am a super vain person, so this was nice for me.

19501Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. You’ve probably read this book already. I feel like everyone has read this book already and I’m sure you know what it’s about. Gilbert’s experience of leaving her life behind to travel the world and forego work is something most of us can’t afford to do, but this book really spoke to my voyeuristic side.

What did I get out of it? My deep abiding love for the healing and spiritual aspects of yoga and meditation started with this book. I will never be able to fully express how important that has been to me over the years and I’m not as good at either as I would like to be, but both practices are something I always return to. I also got a serious urge to run away from my problems, as I read this book right after my dad died. I didn’t have that option, so I stayed at home and worked things out. It can be done.

6398634The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. This is probably the most practical book here and I full-on recommend it to just about anyone. Rubin’s experiment is thoroughly researched and she’s not asking you to slap a smile on your face and be happy, which I like. Instead, she takes us through a year of studying myriad ways people in history have found happiness and trying it out. The journey is relatable and I think almost anyone can pick up a few tips on how to boost your contentment from this book.

What did I get out of it? I learned that like Rubin, I am an all or nothing kind of gal when it comes to certain things. Rubin asserts that some people are good at moderation and some aren’t. She herself doesn’t drink at all because she feels “indiscreet” and agitated after even one glass of wine and she doesn’t keep snacks in the house because she tends to eat them. Both of these values have made their way into my life and I’m grateful for it. There are also some valuable lessons about procrastination here that I’m still taking to heart and working on.

401680The Red Book, by Sera J Beak. I am not a religious person. I find organized religion tough to follow, though I completely respect others’ beliefs. Beak talks a lot about how people like me, who feel spiritual, but not religious, can learn valuable lessons from other religions and bring them into their spiritual practice. I realize this is a somewhat controversial frame of thought, especially for folks who are very religious and take an all or nothing approach to their beliefs. I think there’s a fine line between appropriation and applying valuable wisdom to your life. Beak is a lifelong religious scholar and her approach is far from purely academic and her experiences are wide and far reaching.

What did I get out of it? Beak talks a lot about radical self-love and using spirituality to develop that practice in your own life. To be honest, there’s a lot about her approach that’s not for me, but that aspect of honoring your spiritual self (if you belief in that kind of thing) and practicing self-love and self-care really resonated with me. There was a time in my life when I didn’t know how to do that at all and books like this helped me figure it out. It’s a daily battle, so don’t think for a second I’ve got it figured out.

22521549How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea. I’m reading this right now and I’m about halfway through and so far it’s one of the better books in this genre I’ve read in a long, long while. Tea’s life experiences have been wild, out-of-control and unhealthy, but she’s grown up into a functional, successful and healthy adult. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and Tea’s stories about the wilder times in her life are well told and moving.

What am I getting out of it so far? Lots of things about Tea’s past make sense to me. Her experiences are much, much more intense than my own, but my late teens and the majority of my twenties were times of self-destructive, wild child behavior. I don’t regret most of it and I learned lots from it. I’m not “learning” from Tea thus far so much as identifying with lots of her takeaways from her considerable life experience.

I read so many of these other books when I was at really, really low points in my life and on the arc of coming out of it. I feel like in most ways I’m on the other side of that. It takes a long time to deal with years of self-destructive thinking and behavior. Tea is older than me, so maybe what I’m getting out of this is that it’s a process; you can be on the “other side” and you still have to keep going. We’ll see what I think when I finish the book. Maybe there’s a full recommendation in the future.

So now you know, I’m a deeply flawed human being and I get something out of self-helpish memoirs. Maybe there’s something in this post that might help you, or maybe you’re inspired to find an advice-giving memoir that’s more your style. Either way, here’s to your mental, spiritual and bookish health!

Allison Carr Waechter is almost done with summer school, which is damaging her psyche. If you’ve got ideas about what self-help memoir she can read to keep her going for three more weeks, tweet at her.  

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.