Reading List: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

My first book of the year: The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

This book tells the story of the Los Angeles Central Library, with a special focus on the fire that closed it for six years (and a bizarre investigation). Interspersed, are lots of sometimes quirky and sometimes useful facts about libraries past, present and future.


I read an ebook version from my local library, the Tompkins County Public Library (I also often get ebooks from the New York Public Library). I found the book generally fascinating, and it reinforced my appreciation for libraries and their roles in a community. It has me thinking more again about how libraries are one of the few public spaces outside capitalism. And renewed my interest in other types of resource sharing systems. Like here in Ithaca we have a toy library. And I’ve long thought it would be great to have a neighborhood resource sharing registry, like how many Bundt pans does a neighborhood need?

Do you use your library? Do you use any other kind of resource sharing?

Reading List: Sick by Porochista Khakpour


Several women published books about women and healthcare this year, and I eagerly read “Doing Harm” by Maya Dusenbery when it came out this spring. I had almost forgotten about “Sick” by Porochista Khakpour until a friend posted a year-end list of books of note, and it was on there under memoirs by women. The eBook happened to be available for download from the NYPL, so I took it out last weekend and gave it a read.

Porochista’s story of her life as an unwell immigrant woman of color is a compelling one. It is full of horror and suffering. And I wish I had been shocked by it.

Instead, I noticed which parts of her story I could relate to. I noticed which pieces sounded like stories I hear in Facebook support groups every day. I noticed which pieces of her story are ensnarled in racism and the lack of financial accessibility to the US health care system. And it just reinforced everything I already know, and everything that Maya Dusenbery pointed out: women, especially poor women and women of color, are screwed.

Relatively early in the book Porochista writes about the unfortunate scenario of being in a hospital:

I’d tried to avoid this hostile world of hospital rooms and doctors’ offices for years, but it haunted me. Here I was again, with something unrelated to Lyme and only two choices—to come clean or to hide, but I knew every decision would have something to do with my diagnosis. It amazed me that even after all these years, with all the time that had passed, as I managed to stay out of the medical system for the most part, and my fluency in their language still being proficient, that I could still be in this position—helpless, crazy-seeming, confusing, inconvenient, out of their norm, a problem. And not one worth the time to be solved.

And I thought, that sounds about right. I avoid the hospital at all costs. I carry a wallet card that explains my health conditions in hopes of preventing someone from calling an ambulance if I pass out in public. If I travel by myself, I wear a medical alert bracelet for the same reason. I’ve heard stories of folks who are treated so badly by their local hospitals when they need emergency access to fluids (not unusual for folks with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome) that they have letters on file by their doctors and carry a copy with them and still have no guarantee of getting care when they need it. I regularly see folks on line asking for advice about whether to go to the hospital as they end up losing functions, finding themselves in excruciating pain, and other women counseling them not to go. Weighing the question of the small possibility of relief versus the possibility of being sent home with no care, being accused of “drug seeking,” being abandoned to the waiting room for hours with no one to watch their kids.

This stuff happens every day, folks. Maybe to you or someone you love.

I was also struck by Porochista’s bargaining and negotiations with herself. The years in which she thought it might be easier to “just” chalk up her ill health to addiction instead of admitting she might have Lyme. The ways we can easily deny our realities because they are too inconceivable. Because almost anything might be better that a resignation to a body that you (and your doctors and gurus) cannot heal, and a life you can no longer live. Even after knowing, the adjustment is hard:

It would take a second to remember myself, what I’d become. My full-time job became my health, which was now a mystery illness that was hopelessly complicated by and tangled with addiction to psychiatric medications. I couldn’t believe I was there again, after all the bad experiences I had had. Back to a life of pill bottles and pill cutters and days measured in dosages.

It is a gracious gift, women life Porochista who are allowing us to be voyeurs to her life, because there are thousands, probably millions, of stories that share something of hers. And they need to see the light of day.

Supporting Each Other: Part 3

I think a lot about how people interact with and support each other, especially around the harder things in life. Many of us did not learn the skills necessary to do this well from our families of origin growing up, and they are definitely skills. Luckily, there are some resources out there to help us find our way, and to become better friends to those we care about. This is part 3 of a series exploring some helpful tools.

Part 3

A drawing of two figures seated in a comforting embrace.

Heather Plett’s piece “What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone” is one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive pieces I’ve read on the topic of holding space. When I think about how I can best serve my friends and loved ones, for me it is often about showing up. Being there. Being comfortable with the hard things, with the discomfort. And more and more, it is also about learning to shut up as I’ve mentioned before.

What is holding space? I think of holding space as the act of being fully present with someone and withholding judgement. It incorporates listening and a willingness to be present for whatever is actually happening or actually true. Heather defines “holding space” this way:

It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

Heather identifies eight ways that we can effectively hold space for people. She expands on each idea in her piece, but here they are in brief:

1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.

2. Give people only as much information as they can handle.

3. Don’t take their power away.

4. Keep your own ego out of it.

5. Make them feel safe enough to fail

6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.

7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.

8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.

Number 2 is the first place I get tangled up. If I know something, or have information, I have a history or dumping all of it on people and overwhelming them. I think I’m being helpful. Also, I KNOW THINGS ( I justify in my head). But Celeste Headlee reminded me in her book that it is simply too much for people to absorb, under the best of circumstances. When someone is going through hard times, it could be even harder to take in. In a recent situation I practiced catching myself and saying things like, “Hey. If you decide you’d like some advice on x, let me know. I have some resources that might be helpful.” The response I got was, “Thanks, I might want that later. I’ll let you know.” This was a great response, in part because it was such a clear reminder to me that it wasn’t what the person needed or wanted at that time, And my job was to keep listening and offering support for their actual experience and process.

Sometimes that idea that I think I know things, tangles me up in number four, and I have to realize that’s ego. Who am I to think I know better than them? But I’m a subject matter expert! So what? I am not the expert on their life, their situation, their family, their resources, their feelings, their fears, their needs. I am not. And if I can breathe into remembering this, I can again shut up. And listen. And breathe into number eight. It is OK for them to do something that isn’t what I *think* I would do.

Read the piece. It is much more in depth than the numbered list here. What are some things you find key in holding space for others? What do you struggle with? What has helped you when others have done it for you?

Source: What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone

Supporting Each Other: Part 2

I think a lot about how people interact with and support each other, especially around the harder things in life. Many of us did not learn the skills necessary to do this well from our families of origin growing up, and they are definitely skills. Luckily, there are some resources out there to help us find our way, and to become better friends to those we care about. This is part 2 of a series exploring some helpful tools.

Part 2

Celeste Headlee is the author of “We Need to Talk: How to have conversations that matter.” The book is eye-opening, and I appreciated the ways she talks about cultivating curiosity and better ways of listening. published an excerpt from that book as an essay, “Celeste Headlee: The Mistake I Made with My Grieving Friend.”

One thing that really struck me is how often we have each experienced this kind of exchange. One person is having a hard time, and in response, the other person tells their story – often under the pretense of showing they can relate. But relating may not be what’s going on.

When she began to share her raw emotions, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, so I defaulted to a subject with which I was comfortable: myself.

I may have been trying to empathize, at least on a conscious level, but what I really did was draw focus away from her anguish and turn the attention to me. She wanted to talk to me about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was, so I could fully appreciate the magnitude of her loss. Instead, I asked her to stop for a moment and listen to my story about my dad’s tragic death.

Have you done this? I know I have. And once I read this I started paying attention. Because realistically, none of us want to be on the receiving end of it. At best, we don’t feel heard. At worst, we feel shut down. Celeste shares a term with us: conversational narcissism.

Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious. Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.

I realized that this was a dynamic I was raised with. In fact, I learned that the only way I could be “heard” (or at least get airtime) was to compete for space in a conversation. And that it was never satisfying and I never felt heard or supported.

There’s a better way, which is to move from a “shift response” to a “support response.” Take a gander at Celeste’s piece, or for a deeper dive, her book.

Source: Celeste Headlee The Mistake I Made with My Grieving Friend

Supporting Each Other: Part 1

I think a lot about how people interact with and support each other, especially around the harder things in life. Many of us did not learn the skills necessary to do this well from our families of origin growing up, and they are definitely skills. Luckily, there are some resources out there to help us find our way, and to become better friends to those we care about. This is part 1 of a series exploring some helpful tools.

Part 1

How not to say the wrong thing” from the LA Times in 2013 has become a classic that makes the rounds on social media as people find comfort in it. Susan Silk and Barry Goldman present Susan Silk’s Ring Theory. The key essence is that when a person is going through a thing, they are the center. There are concentric circles surrounding the person that represent closeness of relationship – nearest and dearest closest, most tangential at the farthest. That regardless of where a relationship is in the ring, the way to support is to offer help, support, listening inward toward the center, and to issue complaints, fears, needs, outward.

A drawing of concentric circles showing the aggrieved or afflicted person in the center, with arrows pointing that comfort should be directed in, and dumping directed out.

From the article:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

Fundamentally, the crisis is about the person in crisis. As friends, we need to let it be about them. Be present with *their* pain, without making their pain about us. But any crisis that affects our nearest and dearest may well bring up our own emotions, fears, concerns, hopes. Those are OK to have. In fact, I believe that fully noticing and experiencing those feelings is critically important for us personally, and for those around us. It allows us to have more clarity, authenticity and honesty in our interactions with others. But if we want to process those things externally, we need to process to those who are further away from the crisis. It is not OK to add to the burden of those closer.

I think it is possible to take this too far, or turn it into something destructive. In my relationships, It isn’t OK to pretend we’re OK when we’re not. Let’s imagine I’m in a crisis. And I have a partner. That partner withholding from me that they are scared or angry doesn’t actually help anyone. Ideally, they process and find some clarity about their feelings on their own, with a therapist, with a friend – without putting the burden of the processing on me. But the way to connection is to be able to honestly and appropriately share those feelings with me when I have the bandwidth to hear them. And to rise to the occasion to provide support the rest of the time. I think this is especially helpful when a crisis is sustained over an extended amount of time.

In Part 2, I’ll share some thoughts on how to not center ourselves in our conversations when talking with the person in the center.

Source: How not to say the wrong thing

Self-Care: A Working Definition

I think a lot about self-care. There’s the inescapable advertising and blogging about products and spa days and yoga and having a glass of wine brought to us by the wheels of capitalism. The superficial listicles. And the very real, complex decisions that those of us with chronic illness learn to make in our lives that consider the question at a deeper level. It’s those considerations that I’m actually interested in. And perhaps I’ll share some of my thoughts about that here at a later time.

For now, I want to share this delightful and brilliant piece from the New York Times last weekend: Self-Care: A Working Definition.  The essays by staff members are delicious. Here’s a teaser from a few of them:

Choire Sicha’s piece begins with this:

I’m like a working dog who sometimes forgets it. I spend a lot of time bringing tennis balls to people who didn’t ever ask for them and then I stare at everyone and wonder why they’re not throwing the tennis ball for me. The “tennis ball” is usually a memo of some kind. Then when no one throws my ball I go to lay down for a while and then I become sad. Soon I become a confused prissy toy dog pouting on a pillow.

Shane O’Neill’s begins with this:

Meditation is one of the most incredible and transformative things you can do for yourself. Or so I’ve heard.

That’s why, for me, self-care means planning to meditate someday but never actually getting around to it. It is in the intention.

Sandra E. Garcia:

Using my hands has always brought me back to center. Whether it’s D.I.Y.-ing a nightstand I found on Craigslist for $5, reupholstering furniture or working on my bicycle, taking something apart and putting it back together helps me focus my thoughts and temper the noise of the news cycle. It gives me permission to get out of my head.

Give it a read.

Source: Self-Care: A Working Definition

Americans are starting to like the death penalty again

Support had been declining for 15 years.

Well, this is disturbing. 20 years ago I finished graduate school and ended up working for the ACLU when my original plans veered off course. It was there that I started to understand the deep problems with capital punishment in the US – particularly the racism cooked deeply into it’s fiber.

The stats here undermine the racism, and I can’t help wonder if it is part of the pendulum swing toward normalizing racism and bigotry that many of us have witnesses and spoke out against since 2016.

Also not surprising, a gender division. As we continue to see so many men committing acts of violence and murder, perhaps it doesn’t surprise they are the group most supporting murder by the state.

Take a gander.

Source: Americans are starting to like the death penalty again

Reading List: Braving the Wilderness

Courage is a heart word. Be brave. Love Hard.
[Image Description: A red heart on a rough gray background. Text overlay reads: Courage is a heart word. Be brave. Love Hard.
By Brene Brown]
I love reading, reflecting, and learning new things. And often, I want to talk to other people about the thing I just learned. Folks have mixed responses to this, some humoring me, some genuinely interested, some really hoping I’ll get the hint and change the subject. Late last year I purchased Brene Brown‘s most recent book, “Braving the Wilderness.” It occurred to me that one way to have someone else to talk to about it would be to start a book group. So I did. We are only on the second chapter, but THIS GROUP IS AWESOME.  SO smart. SO willing to share. SO personally invested in the material.

The decision to gather folks together was one of those quiet whispers that I could have ignored, or toyed with, but not followed through. But one small foot in front of the other, listening, and now some bit of magic is happening.