Giving Myself Permission to Fail

Every once in a while someone says what I’m thinking but am afraid to admit. I push some thoughts to the back of my mind because they’re not “trending” or because saying something out loud might make me look “less than” and therefore shouldn’t be spoken.

I was awakened to my suppression of a thought while I was scrolling through Twitter today and noticed a Tweet that said, “The Case for Reading Fewer Books.”

I was intrigued and clicked the link. It was an essay by Annie Neugebauer about how the advent of terrific social media tools may be impacting how we read. Now these tools, like, are great for sharing and reading book reviews and participating in the broader book reading community via online discussion and comments. But! As the essay writer notes, these types of tools can also make it all too easy to indulge our competitive natures and our desire to make ourselves more appealing to an internet audience.

Just as Instagram has made photography into a competitive sport via participants’ seemingly endless search for more “likes”, who knew that reading could become competitive too?

It’s a competition I willingly signed on to but didn’t acknowledge how my desire to achieve a higher number of books read and thus demonstrate how well read I am might be interfering with my joy of reading.

It all began by discovering someone else’s number of books read in a year. It was a lot. To see how I compared, (already a problem is brewing) I tried to figure out how many books I’d read in the same year. My number was much lower. Embarrassingly low. I’d only read seven books that year. I loved each book very much but how could I call myself well-read with such a low number?? Don’t get me wrong. I’m a constant reader. Of magazines, online essays and newspapers. (Another obvious need to prove myself to you. Ugh…) But I wanted to be able to say I’d read a lot of books! I wanted a bigger number.

So, I set a goal to read at least two books a month the following year. I kept a list on my phone. I was rapt with pleasure, like a drug-addict taking a hit (or an Instagram photog gaining a “like”) each time I added another title to my list. By the end of the year, I proudly boasted that I’d surpassed my goal and read 30 books.

And then, probably because I bragged about how many books I’d read, people began to ask for book recommendations. I’d review my list. And guess what I discovered? I only truly loved… seven of the 30 books I’d read.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of terrific books out there. But books that really blow my skirt up don’t necessarily all come to me in the same year. And in my push to accumulate a higher number of books read, I didn’t take the time to be choosey. I just kept plowing forward – sometimes forcing myself to finish a book I didn’t like because I wanted to “count” it.

And long books made me anxious, not because I don’t like long books, but because reading a long book meant fewer books read and a lower number to report.

Turns out, I prefer long books. Thoughtful and thought-provoking books. (not that shorter books can’t be thoughtful and thought –provoking, i.e. Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber. But you catch my drift.)

Anyway, I’m not sure I can be cured of my addiction to achievement. And setting a reading goal is a good way to stay committed to regular reading. (So could being in a book club but I’m not the best book club member cause I tend to bitch about books that other people love.) But, I am going to try to give myself permission to “fail” when I don’t reach my book reading goal, especially if “failure” means I get to savor the books I really want to read no matter how long it takes me.

Special thanks got Neugebauer for helping me to see the error of my ways…


I’m a Time Waster

Most of us by the time we become parents start to develop a sense of nostalgia for the “good old days,” those days that seemed simpler and carefree. For me, it was waking up on Saturday mornings as a kid and eating cereal in front of the television for hours – and I literally mean hours. First, I’d watch Saturday morning cartoons and then I’d tune in to some feature film, often of the “horror” variety – or what was considered “horror” when I was a kid… grainy black and white movies about Godzilla or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Outside of a few assigned chores, I literally did nothing all day. Imagine that. Having a day with nothing to do.

As mothers, those days seem long gone, as if there will never be another day with nothing to do again. Because cleaning a house when you have kids is like stringing beads on a rope with no knot. Right?

It is true that when we were younger, we had fewer responsibilities. But, after reading Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day, I think she might be onto something when she points out that as we’ve grown up, not only do we have more responsibilities, we’ve likely internalized the idea of the American pursuit of happiness. The key word here, she says, is likely not happiness but pursuit. Americans are strivers. We crave accomplishment and not just a little.

I was recently watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, an episode with Tina Fey. They went out to have coffee and a Cronut – a pastry that’s a cross between a croissant and a doughnut invented by New York City pastry chef Dominique Ansel of Dominique Ansel Bakery.

They joked about what if an American had invented the cronut. That it would be “blown-up” with hundreds of storefronts across America. Endless cronuts made available everywhere via fast food franchises. But, because the inventor of the cronut is French, Fey says, he’ll likely instead take 70 weeks of vacation and won’t care if he ever makes another cronut again.

I laughed. But isn’t that how we really are sometimes? If something is good, then lots of it must be better. Americans are always in search of how to wring the most out of everything, including our time. We must not waste time.

Hampl tells a story of her first confession as a young catholic schoolgirl. How she studied the catholic catechism about possible sins she might need to confess. She was very concerned to learn that listed on the list of potential sins was daydreaming. Now I am not catholic and I cannot confirm or deny such a concept but I did find a few thoughts about it online. What I found were mostly things that make sense like we probably shouldn’t daydream about lusty stuff or breaking any of the 10 commandments, which makes sense. But I also read a line on a Christian forum that said, “Daydreaming and unprofitable thoughts lead us away from the Lord.” Hmmm… I thought the term “unprofitable” was interesting. It could likely be interpreted a variety of ways, but it spoke to me in the same way that too many of us view life – as one long to-do list. Hampl says, “For the worker bee, life is given over to the grim satisfaction of striking a firm line through a task accomplished. On to the next, and the next. Check, check. Done and done.”

I am this way. I get an almost perverse satisfaction from checking things off of my to-do list. As if in doing so I’m actually solving any of the worlds problems.

Hampl says, “The essential thing required of the American dream has always been that it must remain a dream, vivid, tantalizingly beyond reach. Just the dreaming of it, which costs nothing, absolutely nothing except every cent of our imaginative attention, inflates the soul. Fills it rather than fulfills it.” Whoa!

She talks about the Latin term known as otium cum dignitate or honorable leisure.  I looked it up. This is what I found from a blogger named Daniel Dendy:

Otium cum dignitate was the advice Cicero gave for how an honest person should live. The word “otium” does not mean ‘idleness’ but instead the advice was to pursue an ensemble of non-political and non-paid activities (I’m going to also insert unprofitable) that allow for the “humanistic” development of an individual.
In other words, Cicero advised that one should dedicate him or herself to study, writing, intimate and cultured conversation, meditation, finding time for family and friends, and of course some time in the countryside. Together with “otium”, Cicero also recommended a strong dose of “dignitas” which was very important to people of his time. Everything was to be done with a sense of measure and moderation. It’s a lovely philosophy of living to try to pursue especially when put in the context of today’s hustle and bustle.

I remember when my first born was an infant, that struggle to shift gears from what a workday looked like compared to what a mother of an infant day looked like. Not getting to finish tasks that I’d started or feeling like I needed to put my sleeping baby down instead of cuddling him because I had so much to do. Just sitting here seemed like wasting time.

Then, years later, when my kids were in school, a friend asked me to babysit her infant for a few hours once a week. I agreed and little Ella was brought to me in her baby carrier. I remember holding baby Ella while lying on the couch watching Regis and Kelly. Not caring a lick about having to accomplish anything else. Why didn’t I treasure those moments with my own kids? Why did I always feel so guilty about “wasting” time? Time passes without regard of what we do with it. My house is no more or less clean today than it was then. I can give no account of anything extraordinary I accomplished because I put my baby down and stopped “wasting time.”

My husband is worse than me when it comes to his need to be (or maybe just feel) busy. It took him years not to resent seeing me sitting in a chair reading a book. In his mind, reading is a waste of time because you’re not really accomplishing anything that can be measured. Sort of like daydreaming… or rocking a baby.

Some people even feel guilty about their hobbies. Speaking of hobbies, I remember once being invited to a card making party. I’m not a “crafty” person, meaning I don’t particularly enjoy crafts, not that I don’t appreciate the process or outcome. But during the presentation by a lovely woman who demonstrated lots of fancy papers, stamps and tools to make homemade greeting cards, I leaned over and whispered to someone, “Seems like a lot of trouble for something that will end up in the trash.” There was an audible gasp. I don’t know why, in room full of crafters, that I was surprised to learn that throwing a “crafted” item away is also likely to be on the list of sins one might need to confess.

But if everything we do or make has to be accounted for, then technically it’s not a time waster and therefore we can justify spending time doing it. Right? Does my throwing a lovely greeting card away detract from its loveliness? Or the joy someone had in making it? Or the joy of receiving it? Really?

My mother-in-law loves to do Sudoku puzzles. But she feels guilty about it. She even said to me once, “I wish I had something to show for the time I spend doing Sudoku like someone who enjoys knitting, or cross-stitch” or card making perhaps… because then, they have something to give away so it’s not really wasting time, right?

But you see, tending to things or creating things without any real goal or accomplishment in mind can be good for the soul – therapeutic you could say. Whoops! By saying it’s therapeutic, I’ve gone and given it a goal without even meaning to. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you need not do only things, that by doing them, you accomplish some “thing.” Hampl notes the importance of just being present, of slowness, of patience – things that only look like wasting time.

She even gives mention of monastic life. I’m not asking you to live it – I’m not nuts. I’m only asking you to think about it for a moment. To imagine, as Hampl says, “no grit of social maneuvering, no sharp elbows of ambition, loving instead the things of the earth with our focus on the immediate growing world, the daily round of life. Time’s seasonal shape. Monastic life is, among other things, profoundly domestic. A lot of bread baking, honey gathering and wine making.”

Granted, most of us don’t have time or desire for a more domestic life.

I’m a mom. I clearly understand that we have enough domestic duties already – many of which I assure you, you need not do as often as your mother told you. I believe it was comedic writer Erma Bombeck who said her theory on “housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?”

So when Hampl mentions monastic life, I think she’s referring more to the essence of care and tending that is more like gardening than farming – more like life in Eden before we became soaked in the sweat of our brow.

I didn’t love all of Hampl’s book. But I appreciated the thrust of her message and wanted to share it. So, I’m here to affirm you that it’s okay to sit still. To play with your kids instead of unloading the dishwasher. It’ll get done. Trust me. One way or another, it all gets done. Plus, I agree with Hampl in that, in an effort to not waste time, I’d prefer not to waste my life. Which leads me to conclude with another of my favorite quotes:

“A clean house is the sign of a life wasted.” So go ahead, embrace the Sabbath day by doing big fat nothing. Bring European siesta culture to America. Start a time wasting trend, and stop feeling guilty about it.


I Am an Outlier

Do you highlight or underline the profound things you discover while reading? Do you try to commit to memory the insights or inspirations of others so you can ponder them or share them in conversation? Do the words you read sometimes haunt you and remind you of how you want to do and be better?

For me, all yes.

In September I read a magazine article about genocide survivors. Okay yes. I read deeply, sometimes darkly. But it’s what draws me toward the light. Truly. As in this case. I think. You decide…

Anyway, a line from the article that stuck with me:

“My lack of proximity to suffering is what marks me as different–the outlier in a world full of horror.”

In my heart, I know this to be true. But in my insulated suburban American life, it can be easy to forget. To believe my life is normal. Something to be expected, earned or entitled to–not the fragile and maybe even momentary gift that it is.

I read about pioneers and marvel at how I don’t need to labor from sun up to sun down to produce my own food.

I read about revolutions and tyranny and how those with hate and revenge in their hearts massacre their own countrymen and I realize how I get to travel undeterred without fear of physical violence when going about my business.

I read about disease and infirmity and I praise God every time I put two feet on the floor in the morning. For now, my mind and body work particularly well considering my age and reluctance to exercise. (Mostly) clean living and privilege clearly contribute to my health but are no guarantee. Calamity can strike as it pleases.

“My lack of proximity to suffering is what marks me as different–the outlier in a world full of horror.”

We may try to avoid getting too close to suffering for fear that it is infectious the way we avoid sugar or secondhand smoke.

After three years of volunteering at a local nursing home, I needed to stop because it was as if old age and disability began to come at me faster and faster. I wanted to focus on the space that still remains in my timeline between two feet on the floor and two feet being washed by an angel.

That’s okay. I needed the reprieve. But it’s not always okay. Do unto others is not just about being polite while in line at Target. (Although some of you could work on that.) For me, Do unto others… is also about recognizing how blessed I am and how life as I know it can change in an instant. And how it will most likely change in ways I will not welcome as I age. Independence is an illusion. We must care for one another.

Somebody in my life or in your life is closer to suffering than us. Who will help them? Who will care for them? Who will sacrifice for them? We are called to do these things. And if empathy and kindness do not come naturally, and I admit that they do not come naturally to me, than I must commit these kinds of words to memory:

“My lack of proximity to suffering is what marks me as different–the outlier in a world full of horror.”

Words like these remind me to be grateful. To be prayer-ful. To be helpful. To understand that just because my life can seem a bit heavenly since I do not suffer (at the moment), this is not heaven. And until I reach heaven, I must do my part to bring a little heaven into the lives of others.

If you are suffering, may you be blessed by someone (or some words) today. May your burden be lighter and your mood lifted by love. If you are beyond suffering for the moment or have yet to endure suffering, I encourage you to take a moment to give thanks and share a bit of kindness to someone today who may be closer to suffering than you.


A St. Valentine’s Day Epiphany

fullsizerenderOccasionally, I have these parenting epiphanies. Like on Valentine’s Day a few years ago when our then middle grade sons quietly removed the little containers of candy I’d stashed in their lunch. Or later, when I offered a suggestion to a high school teacher about how to best handle our older son when he’s stressed. “Mrs. Johnson,” the teacher said, “if your son requires special treatment from me, it’s probably best he ask me himself.”



They are growing up.

No more kiddie candy or sandwiches cut into heart shapes in their lunch. And no more trying to stand between them and discomfort. Big boys must learn to navigate the world without mom trying to smooth every path.

But many moms like me don’t see it coming. We think we have more time because sometimes parenting young children feels endless. It’s not. You’re sopping up spilled juice and begging a kid not to wipe boogers on the wall and then… you’re sitting in a chair sipping coffee while your teens make their own lunch. They drive themselves to school. They navigate their own world without you–pretty well I might add. It seems the hubs and I have done a lot of things right.

But this week I had another epiphany. It’s clear that I did something not quite right when they were younger and another thing particularly well.

Here’s the deal. Our younger son, a freshman, is struggling in an honors English class. His older brother took the same class with the same teacher, and although he had similar complaints about the class, he was able to pull off a decent grade. So I question the younger, “what gives?”

His response is telling. In his example he tells about how the class read The Odyssey as part of a unit on Greek mythology. “Some kids who do well on the tests,” he said, “are those who’ve read all of the Percy Jackson books as a kid.”

If you’re unfamiliar, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan follows the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s a demigod son of Poseidon. The books are beloved by young readers who also happen to absorb a lot of foundational information about Greek mythology.

Our older son read every Percy Jackson book.

Our younger son read Batman comics.

They are both good readers who do well in school. Parents are told it doesn’t matter what kids read as long as they read. I believed that. And it’s probably true up to a point. But like adults who don’t read newspapers or many books, some people lack a depth and/or expanse of knowledge that serves as a building block for understanding other information. I now believe it does matter what children (or all people) read. And for a hot second, I thought I’d failed our younger son.

But then, I attended an art exhibition about Martin Luther and the Reformation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. While there, I overheard a young boy around 8 years old ask his mother about a painting. The boy discovered this oil on canvas illustrating the decapitated head of John the Baptist and said, “Mom! Is that real? Did that really happen?”

“No,” she answered. “It’s only a painting.”

That’s the moment I was assured I’d done one thing right. You see, when our comic book loving boy was around that same age, we bought him an illustrated bible called The Action Bible. The artwork is similar to comic books but the stories are firmly biblical–and not the shortened, most loved, PG rated versions of bible stories–but the entire bible in graphic novel form. He’s read the whole thing at least twice.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Quality is as important as quantity when it comes to reading material for kids.
  • We’ve got limited time to teach the foundations of our values before our kids launch.
  • One of our kids will have to work harder to make sense of some literature.
  • But both of our kids know the bible and its precepts–that love exists, that God is love, that we are called to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That the one thing that really matters… is a faith that expresses itself through love.

Today is Valentine’s Day. The older son checked his lunch and removed the candy I’d stashed inside. But the younger one didn’t peek. So I get one more small opportunity to show love in a “goofy and embarrassing” mom way. I’ll take what I can get and thank God for helping me to not screw this whole parenting thing up completely.


Inspired by Honesty

okay to laughPeople inspire me. So many people are doing cool things. I’m daily amazed at the creativity, ingenuity and drive of so many people making things happen in the world.

I admit that sometimes I’m jealous­–that the torrent of beautifully curated online content can make me feel inferior, lazy or ugly. But not always. Because I know it’s not possible for everything to be perfect all of the time. And everybody has a story-even if they’re unwilling to divulge life’s imperfections, hiccups or disillusionments online.

I believe I have a gift of discernment. I’m mostly able to sort through all of the overt self-promotion I see while scrolling my thumb over my iPhone and click on some things that are pretty awesome. And sometimes, I meet those awesome creatives in person. For instance, last week I attended a local event spotlighting musicians and writers and was drawn in by the incredible onstage talent.

shirtStill Kickin Co. founder, Nora McInerny-Purmort was there. She and a colleague were arranging t-shirts for sale on a table. The shirts said, “Still Kickin.” I’d seen the tag line #stillkickin before, somewhere online, but was unsure what it meant. So I asked. And I was stunned by the answer.

I was further blown away when Nora read a chapter from her forthcoming memoir titled It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too). This beautiful, seemingly put-together young woman was telling the world about anguish­–about how she has been broken. In a very real (and hilarious) way, she exposes her grief, explains how the world is unexplainable and that by putting one foot in front of the other, she is still kickin. The t-shirts seem to be her way of celebrating the small steps taken by every person who, like her, might be having or has ever had a rough go, aka everybody. Still Kickin is like an affirmation, a sideline cheer, a hug or a thumbs up. Because when everything feels like it’s falling apart or maybe we just feel like we don’t measure up, this quirky tag line can be a reminder that someone is in your corner.

I don’t know Nora. But I now know a piece of her story. I honor her honesty, her vulnerability and her guts. She’s also incredibly funny and creative. I bought a t-shirt and I’ve pre-ordered her book. I’m inspired by Nora. I think you will be too.

Tennis Kickin


Pulling Myself Up by the Roots

DSCN1908Christmas vacation is over and I’m ready to get back to work. The time off was great. Restful. Fun. Togetherness. And even when the decorating, shopping, cooking and gift-wrapping at times felt overwhelming, I think I still prefer vacationing at Christmastime the most. Of course the religious and spiritual significance of the season make December special. But I also appreciate that most everyone else is also on vacation between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. It’s like a universal Sabbath.

Unlike being on vacation at other times of the year, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on things going on in the world. I don’t dread a return to an overflowing email inbox, mile-long to-do lists and looming deadlines. Everybody seems to move more slowly at the end of December. This collective downshift into a lower gear helps me to truly relax and immerse into family life, entertaining and just plain lazing. And it was glorious.

But now it’s back to reality because one can only laze just so much before roots form on your ass and begin to penetrate the couch cushions, making it increasingly difficult to ever get up and get moving again at a pace required by the promise of a brand New Year. Oh, how I require a certain amount of goals, routines and demands on my time or I will most surely become a permanent part of the furniture.

Speaking of goals and the New Year, I can only stand (sit mostly) in awe of goal setting over-achievers like my blogger friend, Nina Badzin, who has set a goal to read 50 books in 2015. She’s done it before and to my mind, reading 50 books is an incredibly impressive feat, so much so, that it’s probably too much of a stretch goal for me.

I could say my first full year as editor of Edina Magazine consumed much of my brainpower, making reading books seem like a lost luxury. But something else has also prevented me from reading many books in 2014. Watching TV with my kids. They are finally at an age when I actually enjoy the television programming they choose. And in a teen’s life of seemingly endless sports practices, homework and video gaming, TV can still serve to bring an otherwise disparate family together. I wouldn’t trade these fleeting moments together for isolated book reading.

Also, my attention span has collapsed a bit from consuming continuous scraps of news stories or essays found on Twitter and Flipboard. I need to work my way back up to a regular diet of books. So my 2015 reading goal is 12 books. One per month. I know it’s no more than what’s required of an introductory book club member. But I read only seven books in 2014 making 12 seem reasonable and attainable. Plus, now it’s public. So I’m accountable.

DSCN1914Books I read in 2014:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

The Lobotomist by Jack El-Hai (Also a PBS American Experience documentary)

Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos

Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Reading makes for better writing. Hopefully that will be evidenced on this blog. I now have a full year of blogging under my belt. And in 2015 I’m planning more frequent posts and opportunities to begin conversations with you dear reader. Thank you, by the way, for being a part of my writerly journey. A writer without readers is… well, still a writer, albeit maybe a slightly more lonely one.

I’m also prepared to commit to daily devotions with my family. Our household religious rituals include weekly church attendance and prayers before meals. But regular scripture reading is often left to the individual. I hope to make bible study more familial by reading and discussing scripture together most nights during the evening meal. Our teens may at first groan at this resolution. But I plan to hold fast to this commitment–confident it will be a blessing to us all.


Credit Sarah Dibbern

Lastly, over the past month or so, I’ve made it a point to call my mother every day. I plan to continue these daily calls throughout the New Year. She is a plane ride away. This makes it impossible to check in on her or take her to lunch as often as I’d like. Not having enough demands on her time means she’s acquired some of those dreaded couch cushion roots. And when your parent’s couch roots become so strong that they’ve managed to wrap tentacle-like around all things nostalgic, comfortable and familiar, a once vibrant life can struggle to flourish. What can I do? It is difficult to know how to be a good daughter. But for now, I resolve to offer words. Words of care, companionship, conversation, inspiration, instigation, joy and hope. It is my desire that a daily phone call containing a few Words by Angela might be considered uplifting in some way–just like what I hope to offer you dear reader each time you visit me here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a joyful, restful and blessed Christmas season. Please feel free to share a few of your goals for the New Year in the comments section. Happy New Year!


“Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives.” -
Viktor Frankl



You Can Take a Girl Out of Flint…

Like you, I’m a reader. I read novels and non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and blogs. I’ve got Kindle, Flipboard and iBooks on my phone so that a variety of reading material is literally at my fingertips at all times. And, like you, certain books tend to resonate with me. I’m enthralled by non-fiction and history, books that tend to turn me into the Cliff Clavin of conversations, excited to spurt acquired information like an annoying leaky hose.

When it comes to literature, last month, I wrote a post about a handful of Midwest inspired novels enshrined on my bookshelf. Tales of endurance, family and the allure the great plains has had on dreamers, immigrants and adventurers over hundreds of years.

Today, my reading suggestions zero in on a very distinctive Midwest region, the birthplace of General Motors, home of autoworker union strikes and of a once burgeoning middle class left devastated by changing economics, poor education and broken homes. This region also happens to be the place of my youth, thus the resonance, wincing and personal heartbreak I’ve felt while reading each one.

I encourage you to read these books and attempt to understand what’s happened in places like Flint and Detroit. Because if you think this wreckage can’t happen elsewhere, you need only pay attention to the state of manufacturing, housing, education, governance and family life in other pockets around the country to recognize how close communities, businesses, families and people can come to the brink of calamity.


RivetheadRivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper

An oldie but a goodie for anyone curious about automotive factory life in Flint Michigan during the 70s and 80s. I give credence to Hamper’s descriptions as they closely match the stories I heard from other “shoprats” while growing up in Flint. His essays hint of the disastrous and greedy collusion between the UAW and GM executives that paved the way for thousands of manufacturing workers to lose their jobs and an entire town to become abandoned; albeit nobody believed that could happen back then. There are no clean hands in this tale and your mind will be blown by factory floor exploits described in raw detail by this foul-mouthed wordsmith. An interesting read that allows the reader to decide which ingredient in this historical stew is most responsible for a city’s unsavoriness.


Please Don't Come Back From the MoonPlease Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos

This novel is set in Detroit during the early 1990’s and describes a community filled with kids forced to grow up without their fathers. The turmoil created by parental abandonment seems to have become accepted as a “normal” adolescent rite of passage in contemporary life. But Bakopoulos effectively narrates the real pain of loss and how children and teens attempt to be “resilient” and navigate life mostly unsupervised and without direction.

As an all too typical fatherless child who grew up in a decaying community of way too many fatherless children, this story touched my heart. Combine this read with a viewing of Kevin Durant’s Mother’s Day speech and you’ll want to pin medals on all the single moms who’ve managed to avoid or overcome depression, frustration, drug addiction, loneliness and poverty to raise children after their husbands took, in Bakopoulos’s words, “a trip to the moon.”


TeardownTeardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City by Gordon Young

A recent and important book that paints with broad strokes a historical portrait of a city that was once a powerful launch pad into the middle class for thousands of hard-working families. A Flint native, Young manages to highlight the underlying culture of a city unprepared to adapt to change and contrast it with his current hometown of San Francisco–two cities that may as well be on different planets.

When I try to explain what Flint is, this place that partly shaped my young life, many react with skepticism. Could any place in America really suffer in this way? Teardown tells us the answer is yes. It also asks, “What can be done about it?”


MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For the more adventurous literary readers, this epic tale takes you on a journey from Greece to Detroit with an astonishing story of family, adolescence and eventual acceptance of self. Less a book about place as the others I’ve mentioned, the setting still provides some pretty interesting insight into the evolution of Detroit–a locale that cannot be described in one word or even one sentence. It is as fraught as the cast of characters in Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.


And You Thought Your Life Was Hard…

“Spring” has sprung on the tundra. So far, it’s better than last year, with snow mostly melted and a 70 degree day in the bag. Today it’s 40 so we’re not out of the weather woods yet. But after enduring a brutally bitter, hunched to the north wind, teeth chattering, Cuddle Dud layering winter, I scoff at 40 degrees, a toughened Midwesterner proud of my winter survival both physically and mentally.

But I barely qualify as Midwestern tough and only by 2014 standards with hot showers, a gas fireplace, a closet full of fleece and an attached garage. I’m a city girl who shops and doesn’t farm. I’ve never known life without access to indoor plumbing, take-out or television. Had I been forced to live on the plains 100 years ago–hell, even 50 years ago–I never would have made it. I marvel at the rugged endurance, courage and resilience of bygone Midwesterners and am thus drawn to reading Midwestern literature.

So as the weather slooooowly warms, here are a few summer reading suggestions for anyone who thinks they’ve got it hard in flyover country. These books are beloved to me, cherished for great storytelling, compelling characters and depictions of Midwest culture, endurance and community at its finest.


SandraDallasThe Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas

Loaned to me by a friend one summer, it’s been a while since I’ve read this one. But I often recommend it–the story of an Iowa girl who hastily marries and travels west with her new husband to carve out a life on the plains. I had no idea people actually lived in sod houses, or how one would build a sod house. Simple supplies like sugar, coffee and company are coveted luxuries, let alone healthcare or police in case of emergencies. Daily heroism is layered with Mattie’s loneliness and her suspicion that perhaps her new husband doesn’t love her.

I never got around to reading more of Sandra Dallas’s work. But I wouldn’t rule it out since I enjoyed this book so much.


LeifEngerPeace Like a River by Leif Enger

A more contemporary story of life in the upper Midwest, this is an unhurried tale of a faith-filled man and the distance he travels to save his teenaged son accused of murder. Around the edges and deep in the heart of this adventure is an honest inquiry into the possibility of miracles. Beautifully written from the perspective of the second son, Reuben, this story is unjaded by modern-day cynicism. Instead it exemplifies the strength of family bonds, unconditional love, and that Midwestern confidence that justice can and will be done.


DavidRhodesDriftless by David Rhodes

Probably one of my favorite books of all time, this collection of vignettes is strung together to create a Wisconsin community so familiar, you’ll swear you know or have known someone similar to every character in the book. Small town life is illuminated through dashes of eccentricity, suspicions of strangers, peculiar prejudices, devotion to routine, and an unwavering commitment to lending a helping hand. There are also scenes involving a car chase, a panther and a casino, which add just the right dash of flavor to this simmering stew of literary genius. Oh, and I sobbed at one point in the story while reading and relaxing in a lakeside Adirondack chair. So be prepared to giggle, sniffle and be immersed in the close-to-home reality of this wonderful novel.


O.E.RolvaagGiants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag

The best for last. This story will be with me always. Even its opening lines are forever emblazoned in my brain. “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon… bright clear sky, today, tomorrow and for all time to come.”

When you read those words, you know you’re about to embark on something big–the tale of Norwegian immigrants traveling west to South Dakota–fisherman turned farmers and all that that entails when pioneers don’t speak the language and are confronted with trials ranging from devastating weather events to fields ravaged by insects. And loneliness becomes fertile soil for the evils of depression, which can take root and threaten the sanity of the heartiest among them. I became so engrossed in this book, I found myself whispering prayers for its fictional characters. It’s truly an epic, a journey worth taking, but only from the comfort of my 21st century life.

If you have reading list picks to add to this list, please mention them in the comments. We all need more to read while we wait for warmer weather on the plains.