It’s December 27th. The work year has been wrapped. The gifts were selected and exchanged. The well wishes shared. The food prepared and leftovers assembled and stored, beguilingly, in the fridge. One zap in the microwave to an instant replay of our favorite holiday tastes, conjuring the best of our family memories and traditions.
But the biggest indulgence of all is nothingness. Nothing on the calendar. And a wide open week ahead, to fill– or not–as we like.
Into this wide open possibility, I started my day with a random act that was at once thrilling and terrifying. I deleted my email. Every last one of the work and personal inbox items that veritably ruled my life all year long.
My newly downloaded IOS gave me the giddy-making one button power to finally round up and annihilate the 7000+ ghosts of deadlines passed and the weedy camouflage of junk mail. I feel liberated and ready to reset that which I’ve allowed to shackle me.
As I get older, I’m realizing I no longer want to be as cavalier about what I do with my days, my life. So today, well into the middle of my life, I contemplate the possibility of beginnings.
I like this passage on Beginnings from David Whyte’s book Consolations: The solace, nourishment and meaning of everyday words.
Beginning well or beginning poorly, what is important is simply to begin, but the ability to make a good beginning is also an art form. Beginning well involves a clearing away of the crass, the irrelevant and the complicated to find the beautiful, often hidden lineaments of the essential and the necessary.
Beginning is difficult, and our procrastination is a fine ever-present measure of our reluctance in taking that first close-in, courageous step to reclaiming our happiness. Perhaps, because taking a new step always leads to a kind of radical internal simplification, where, suddenly, very large parts of us, parts of us we have kept gainfully employed for years, parts of us still rehearsing the old complicated story, are suddenly out of a job. There occurs in effect, a form of internal corporate downsizing, where the parts of us too afraid to participate or having nothing now to offer, are let go, with all of the accompanying death-like trauma, and where the very last fight occurs, a rear guard disbelief that this new, less complicated self, and this very simple step, is all that is needed for the new possibilities ahead.
It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.
Email deleting may not be courageous, but it’s a start.
We gather around 11 carefully considered selections each year.
Sometimes the group weighs in on the choice, as it is a heavy burden to pick correctly. Luckily, like master safe-crackers, we’ve developed a group muscle-memory to cleverly sense and sort through the limitless combinations possible.
“Is it really long? Like more than 300 pages?”
“Is that non fiction?”
“Has Bev already read it?”
“Did Donna choose it? Don’t forget about Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady
and that awful Magus book!”
Every book club has its own charter and its own character. It just so happens that our book club, created 20 years ago, on the charmingly sweet notion of a mother-daughter gathering of hearts and minds, has many characters. And while there is only one matriarchal pair left today, the group –like family– is both disparate in perspectives, experiences and passions and inextricably connected.
I haven’t been in book club all 20 years. In fact, like the names of authors and titles of books I read just weeks or months ago, I honestly can’t remember how many years it’s been since Jan invited me to join. I know it is more than 10 and less than 15. But in that time, I’ve come to realize that I get so much more than a few hours of pleasant socializing and a few minutes of book review each month, I get to learn. In fact perhaps all I really need to know I learned at book club.
Since my memory can’t be trusted to recall it all, and life is too short to think up –or read through– 20 memories, here are the top five lessons I’ve learned in book club:
Eat Bon Bons
The book we read the first time I hosted book club was Housewives Eating Bon Bons. At the time, the title sounded frivolous and book club, too, felt light and breezy. There were no rules on when or how we discussed the book. Even the rules of hosting were simple: the host takes care of drinks and everyone else brings something to eat. No one is assigned salad, entrée, dessert. Just bring what you feel like. And it somehow always works out.
I was maybe six months into book club and starting to sense a pattern to our agenda-less agenda:
Exchange hugs, check out how amazingly cute and well put together all these women are
Check in on each other’s families, kids and grandkids
Nibble and chat about the latest travels. Typically, Jan and 6-20 of her closest friends had just come back from a fabulous cruise.
Chat about upcoming travels. Yup, that would be Jan and aforementioned group of friends, including many in the group: Sue, Vera, Bev, Barbara
Bev looks at her watch, says she and Sue need to leave in 10 minutes for the long commute back to Marin, and we (sometimes grudgingly) turn our animated conversation to the book.
This book was perhaps the first I’d read that alternated narrators for each chapter, allowing the reader to get to know the characters more intimately. And, it explored the complexities and secrets of women’s lives beneath the light and breezy masks we sometimes wear for society.
That night we talked about friendship. About looking out for others, listening beyond the spoken words and outward appearances. We connected with, grieved for, and cheered on the conquests of the characters.
We bit into the metaphorical bon bons, and discovered the centers had more substance, and sustenance, when we explored and took the time to “taste” their relevance to our lives.
Be Present to Your Past
We are a very privileged group. While we’ve each had our struggles, heartbreaks and hardships, by and large, we’ve been graced with prosperity in love, friendship, health and life. And so many in book club are likewise privileged to have our lives’ tapestry of memories embroidered with threads from each other. Lives shared and cherished –from growing up in San Francisco in the 1950’s or raising families in Walnut Creek in the 1970’s or the 1990’s.
Much of the tremendous privilege we enjoy comes with our collective good fortune to have been born as US citizens. Yet, so much that has happened in this country over those decades has dulled or diluted in our memories. So, it is with book club that we connect or reconnect with a deeper context on our pasts.
Books like The Boys in the Boat and The Orphan Train reminded us of the tenuous connection of families –even some of our own families– under financial constraints of the 1920’s. Or the travail of US citizens imprisoned on US soil during the war—their only crime, their heritage– which we learned about in The Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and The Underside of Joy. The Help and the Secret Life of Bees schooled us in the excruciating dual existence of people living on both sides of the racial divide in the 60’s – a time when some of us were otherwise caught up in raising families in the suburbs or learning to ride bikes on wide sunny cul-de-sacs. The Tortilla Curtain likewise helped us understand the wide gulf of luck and liberty that separates our existence from that of illegal immigrants striving to survive on the other side of our gated communities. And we got a front row seat on the leaders and leadership of our country that had the greatest privilege and most onerous responsibility of all in the book about the US Presidents and their wives.
Revisiting our country’s history, transgressions, horrors and advancements helps put our own histories in deeper context.
Travel the World in Someone Else’s Shoes (or Glasses)
What history class did not imprint in our minds, many book club novels have. Our choices blend the irresistible closeness of an insider’s view within historical context.
We got a look at European life from: the middle ages to the present; from the lowest castes to royalty; from artisans to courtesans; from clergy to despots; and from soldiers to students and Germans to Jews. Our guides include authors of Pillars of the Earth, TheOutlanders, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, All the Light We Cannot See, The Plum Tree and The Book Thief.
And we took big leaps from the familiar with exploration of truly foreign experience and perspective from South Africa, India, China, the Middle East and North Korea through on-page witness to atrocities borne with unimaginable hope. Nothing to Envy, The Kite Runner, Little Bee, the Joy Luck Club and Cutting for Stone.
And we even did a shorthand imbibing tour of the ages with Connie’s suggestion: The History of the World in 6 Glasses. Glad that we drink wine and beer freely today – not just to survive dysentery.
Somehow, the global tragedies and triumphs in the daily news seem closer, more accessible and personal with all of this context.
When I joined book club, there was often talk about the latest “letter” coming from the Sue Grafton mystery series. While we took on a decent range of genres in novels, we tended to stick with the familiar themes on relationships, women, and mystery.
Over the years, we not only began to explore geographies and history, we took an topics that touched a nerve, explored differences, and hit on hard experiences very close to home. These books helped us look a little more carefully—and talk a little more openly—about topics that are very visceral, helping us face being uncomfortable together.
We got both intense and warm-hearted tours inside the minds of those who think differently: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, House Rules, the Rosie Project and Turn of Mind. Thanks to Karen for helping us learn about the tragic disease, Alzheimer’s, with frightening statistics and very personal reference.
Great teacher that she is, Karen also gave us a very vivid pneumonic for the physically and mentally constrained existence of a kidnapped woman raising a child of rape in an 11 by 11 foot space: The Room. We had our entire discussion inside a taped off 11X11 space in her livingroom.
We alternately held our breath and cheered for the child and his family members bravely facing a world behind the eyes of a terribly disfigured face in Wonder.
We explored the line between driving achievement and driving success in parenting when we reviewed The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
We got our sexy on with the poorly written, but nonetheless guilty pleasure of 50 Shades of Gray. If only our own very sexy, daring and never shy Vera who we lost to lung cancer a few years earlier, would have been here for that review. The conversation would have clearly been a lot less reserved!
And we surprised ourselves when we looked at the personal impacts of being introverted in an extroverted world with our review of the book Quiet. Who would have thought that our fearless leader, Jan, had an ounce of introversion in her sassy, generous, perfectly polished and stylish self?
Be Generous, and the Next Generation will Aspire to Your Legacy
Best of all of my learning from this collection of awesomely inspiring, tremendously caring, wickedly smart, brilliantly witty, effortlessly athletic, intellectually curious, gut-bustingly funny, barrier-breakingly brave, and unfailingly supportive women is one thing: be generous. The generosity of open doors, open minds, open hearts and open arms modeled by the women of the Mother-Daughter book club has set a model that all of those lucky enough to join have learned from each and every month!
Jan, Donna, Beverly, Sue, Barbara, Joan, Karen, Connie, Vera, Barb, and Mardie, I am forever in your debt and honored by your friendship.