Slowing down

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #170

In these strange COVID-19 times, I feel thankful for the fact that some preventive measures have been put into place and it means life is slowing down in an unprecedented way.  I know this crisis is negatively impacting thousands of people, and that many health professionals will be working overtime in extremely difficult conditions.  So I appreciate that this feeling of gratitude comes from a place of privilege (I am not in the most at-risk group; I have a safe place where I can keep my distance and that is also the case for my family; I can easily work from home and keep receiving my salary etc).

Only time will tell how the next weeks and months will turn out.  In order not to get too anxious, I’m trying instead to focus on the upsides of seeing what life is like when dialing back from the frenetic pace we are used to.  For now, I’d like to embrace this slowing down as an opportunity to rest and reflect.  I may use some of that down time at home to simply declutter the apartment, do some writing and work my way through the pile of books waiting to be read on my nightstand…

Diving back into a good book

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #164

In January, I’ve been lucky to borrow several unputdownable books from the library. I am grateful to live in Amsterdam, a city with such a well-stocked public library, which means all these amazing books are easily accessible.

Winter is perfect for going to bed early and having the luxury of reading in peace after a busy day.  I love the feeling of being in the middle of a great book and not being able to wait to dive back into it and find out what happens. I relish being drawn into new experiences and seeing the world through different characters’ eyes for a while.  As a novice writer, I am in awe of the authors’ craft and hope to soak up their expert story-telling techniques and absorb their beautiful way with words.

Reading review for 2019

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A couple of years ago, I realised that tracking and reviewing what I read helps me to be more intentional of my choices and it has made my reading experience more stimulating and rewarding. Here is a summary with some key data, as well as my plans for 2020.

In 2019 I had a surprisingly good year in terms of reading. I read more than I expected reaching 54 books, with on average one book a week, for a total of about 14400 pages.  24% of those books were written by men (13), so I feel like this year I did a great job at exploring more women’s voices. The authors of were from all around the world: UK, USA, India, Italy, Ireland, Hong-Kong, Comoros Islands, Palestine and France.

This year I read a very diverse batch of novels, self-help and non-fiction books, both light and deeper topics. I really enjoyed expanding my horizons on topics such as slavery, the environment and genres like dystopia.

Over the year, I treated myself to a few books to support my local bookstore, but most of the others were from the public library, the little free libraries, gifted to me or borrowed from friends and colleagues.  Eight of these books we read with our book club and had lively discussions about over good coffee. Next to the book club, I have lately been enjoying chats about books with my colleagues as we make our way through the lunch queue at work.

What I haven’t included in my overview are short stories, which I read a lot of this year, in the context of my writing course to get inspiration for my own writing.  Being transported in a few pages to totally different worlds and styles is wonderful and has led me to encounter authors I’d never heard of.

Looking at this summary, I realise that in 2020 I’d like to read more books by authors from a wider range of countries, to support translated works and discover voices that are new to me. I will try to be more conscious of this when I list books on Goodreads. I will also continue to read books on topics such as feminism and social injustice to broaden my understanding of complex issues.

I welcome your reading suggestions, please feel free to write them in the comments! Thanks and happy reading in 2020:)

*****

You can find my overviews of 2018 and 2017, and further book lists.

Books about walking

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Hibernation season has decidedly arrived and as the cold settles in and raindrops hit the windows, I’m happy to live vicariously from the comfort of my sofa, while I wait for the right season to pull on my hiking shoes and go for a long walk. Here is a short list of books about walking to accompany you in these cold months.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed’s beautiful memoir of how walking can lead you back to yourself in times of deep loss and grief.  It doesn’t sugarcoat the experience of long-term hiking, and it’s funny, desperately sad and hopeful all rolled in one.

Walking: One step at a time – Erling Kagge

I read this book in Italian, I was drawn to its title which is translated as ‘Camminare – un gesto sovversivo’, meaning ‘Walking – a subversive act’,  and therefore appealed to the rebellious part of me. It’s a poetic ode to walking on a day-to-day and a reminder of how slowing down and walking is a powerful way of resisting being pulled into the vortex of ever-increasing speed.

Walking to listen – Andrew Forsthoefel

The true story of how Andrew set out to cross the US by foot and actively listen to people’s stories. He shares stories from people from all walks of life, races, ages, who were generous on his way.  I enjoyed how it reveals a lot about privilege and how stereotypes are put to the test when we realise we are all simply humans trying to live our best lives.

Without ever reaching the summit – Paolo Cognetti

Cognetti’s account of his hike at the foot of the Himalayan mountains makes you feel you are right there with him. I like this book because with no intention of conquering the summit it is focussed on just experiencing the landscape at 4-5000 meters, observing its nature and wildlife, and describing the inhabitants and the human connection born on such a trip.

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*****

Putting together this post, I took a dive in my photography archive to look for some relevant pictures from when I was walking the Camino along the Northern coast of Spain.  Just looking at these photos I am drawn back to the remote places along the path, I can feel the weight of my backpack, the exhilaration of having no other task than to walk 6 to 8 hours a day and the repeated joy of overlooking an amazing landscape after an upwards climb.

 

Reading short stories

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I’ve been appreciating reading short stories lately.  Some I found in a pile of decade-old New Yorkers that I came across at the little free library, some in the anthology of short stories that is our syllabus for my next writing class, some online in literary magazines I’m thinking off submitting to or other links unearthed in some internet rabbit-hole…  I usually read novels or non-fiction books, but I’m having a great time picking up the huge doorstop of an anthology, and browsing for a familiar name or a story with an intriguing title and dive into a new world for a few pages.

It’s fascinating to see that some stories don’t resonate with me at all, while others I am drawn into after just a few words and held breathless to the end. Also, it’s reassuring because it reminds me how subjective taste is, and how much is personal, projected onto the story by the reader. It’s a nice format in these days where attention spans are ever-shortening, and it’s encouraging to see how short pieces can pack a punch and feel how they stay with me long after I’ve finished reading them.

Books about grief

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Grief is not only the deep sorrow we feel when a loved one dies, it’s our reaction to all our losses, big and small on an every day basis.  A rejected submission, leaving a city you lived in, things not turning out the way you expected them to, heartbreak, sadness in the face of the climate crisis, losing your favorite tupperware (don’t laugh! that tupperware and I went way back and had travelled the world together!).

In a culture where life goes ever faster, grief is also not a linear process that peaks and then winds down and disappears forever.  We’d like it to be over and done with, but it often comes back at unexpected moments, when hearing a song, traveling somewhere, finding yourself wanting to turn to that person who is no longer there for advice…

Over the years I’ve read some great books about grief that helped me feel less alone, in very dark times after losing close family members I loved, and also in more banal moments when feeling sadness about the way things were going, and the struggle with burnout.  The books mentionned below are like a light shining on a path that many before me have wandered and helped give me tools to make my way by reducing the struggle and allowing the emotions.

Broken Open – Elisabeth Lesser

Subtitled ‘How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow’, I turn to this book often as it is truly comforting, a sort of map through the dark forest of tough times to the other side.  I love learning from other people’s stories and this book is full of all sorts of anecdotes and wisdom. I highly recommend it, whatever is going on in your life.

On Grief and Grieving – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler

This book is written by two doctors who worked alongside of people who were dying.  With many short examples it runs through the different stages of grief around death and giving examples of things that may be felt and the way others

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

I read this book many years ago, and I will never forget it’s amazingly beautiful title.  It’s  based on Joan Didion’s own experience. I don’t remember the details but rather the atmosphere, the brutal honesty of life after loss, of the absurdity and necessity of going on, the magical daily moments that make up life.

Glad No Matter What – SARK

SARK’s books are not necessarily for everyone, but I really enjoy her colourful handwritten style. I am inspired by how she challenges the reader to reframe things and I love the serendipitous stories she shares about people she encounters. At the same time, she is real about how she feels and the need to allow ourselves to pass through layers of grief. She also shares many resources at the end of each chapter, so there is much more to dive into.

*****

And if you are more into podcasts, in this amazing interview Elizabeth Gilbert talks about grief after her partner passed away. The whole recording is fascinating, but skip to 44mn for her beautiful description of grief.

Permission to relax

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Last Friday, on my day off, I gave myself a wonderful gift.  It didn’t cost any money and I didn’t even need to leave the house. It was a grey rainy day outside and I knew I had an intensive weekend ahead, so I spent a large part of the day just lying on the sofa, reading.

I let myself be swept into the characters’ lives and was completely absorbed in another world for hours, while totally ignoring my real-life to-do list and not feeling like I needed to stop reading to do something more important.  It was wonderful and it recharged my batteries much more than ticking off items on my to-do list ever would. I plan to do this again soon. Here’s to giving ourselves permission to relax and recharge in whatever way works for us, regardless of what still needs to be done!

2018 reading statistics

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It’s always interesting to look back at the past year’s books and crunch some numbers to observe if there are any trends and help plan for the year ahead. This year I started tracking which books I read on Goodreads, which is great because it means I have an accurate overview, as it’s easy to forget which books I was reading 12 months ago.

Findings from 2018

In 2018, I read 56 books, corresponding to 16320 pages (!), I doubt I’ve ever read that many books in one year.  I mostly read novels (64%), the rest was a combination of non-fiction/memoirs/self-help books.

Of those books, 59% were written by women (33 books), 39% by men (22 books)  and 2% by a woman/man couple (1 book).  I paid more attention this year to selecting books written by women so I’m glad that is reflected in these numbers and it balances out my 2017 gender gap.

Without particularly trying to diversify, the authors of the books are from 13 different nationalities (Austria, Australia, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Norway, Switserland, USA), however with a high proportion of the books written by authors from the USA. I read mostly in English, and just a few books in French and one in Italian.

The books I read were published between 1946 and 2018, however the large majority  of what I chose to read was written from 2000 onward (84%). Like for movies, I tend to be attracted more by recent books.

Plans for 2019

I would like to make a more conscious effort to support new authors, as well as read more books from different countries. (I’m so inspired by the story of the lady who read a book from every country in the world)

I will continue to strive for gender balance. I plan to source my books from a combination of the public library, independent bookstores, gifts (I received four great books by women authors for Christmas, hooray!) and the little free libraries in the neighbourhood.

I’m curious to hear your reading plans for 2019. Feel free to share in the comments:)

Not-quite-end-of-year book recommendations

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The first snow has made its appearance in Amsterdam this weekend, and it is the perfect weather for cupping a warm cup of tea with two hands with a good book in my lap. It’s not quite time to review the statistics about all this year’s reading, so for now I’ll just share three recommendations from the last months, as inspiration to read during the cosy evenings of the Christmas holidays!

All the birds, singing – Evie Wyld

I came across this book at the library by chance and it kept me in its grip for the few days I spent reading it.  The story telling is well done and you can really feel the heat of the Australian bush as if you were there. It brought back very clear memories of a trip we took with my family over 25 years ago to a farm in Australia where we saw sheep being sheared, it’s amazing how those images remain ingrained in some deep corner of the brain after all those years!

Tattoos on the heart: the power of boundless compassion – Gregory Boyle

I found this book in a little free library, and though it is written by a pastor it is not at all the ‘religious’ as I thought it may be. This book will warm your heart. It is a bundle of anecdotes from Father Gregory’s time working in Los Angeles in a neighbourhood with high gang activity and his amazing project to find concrete solutions.  It’s a powerful mix of down-to-earth, hilarious stories and deep reflection about hope and how to value every single person whatever their situation. It’s inspiring to read about the effects of acknowledging our common humanity and approaching it with unconditional love.

Vox – Christina Dalcher

This is the latest book we are reading in our book club (great suggestion by Paolo!), about a world very similar to ours, except women can only say maximum 100 words a day, after which they receive an electroshock for every extra word.  The frustration and anxiety you feel just reading about such a situation is a serious reminder of how precious our voices are and a powerful call to activism.

*****

Previous book recommendations: books I enjoyed lately, books about creativity, non-fiction books, discovering new voices.

Guide for fun and energising Xmas gifts

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Tired of shopping for presents just before Christmas in overcrowded shops? There’s nothing wrong with presents as such, but I feel like the pressure to buy gifts pushes us towards quick fixes that are not always satisfying. There has to be a better way, right?

As with everything, I believe it is possible to make the whole experience much more energising and sustainable, both for the person giving and the one receiving:) By being more mindful, we end up with intentional gifts and stories that lead to more fun and greater connection.

Giving

  • Experience gifts:  They are the norm among my family and friends for several years already compared to material gifts.  It’s a chance to offer someone an experience, based on their interests that they will remember and cherish, rather than just one more object. You can make it as cheap or expensive as you like (a home cooked meal or time spent together are great options).
    Over the last years, I’ve given tickets to concerts, escape rooms and plays, offered vouchers for massages, made vouchers to spend creative time with friends and family…
    TIP: if it is an activity for several people, plan a date immediately with all participants, so you have something to look forward to!
  • Secret Santa: instead of buying gifts for everyone, organise a secret santa so you can focus on getting a quality gift for just one person
    TIP: get people to be very specific about that they want so you get them a gift that makes their heart sing (see below on Receiving).
  • Support small businesses: If you are buying material gifts (jewelry, clothes, decoration items…), think of this as an opportunity to support small/local businesses that make you enthusiastic and for who your purchase will make a difference, leading to a happy dance.
    TIP: Keep a list of the small craft businesses/independent brands you come across all year around at local craft markets, Etsy or social media, so you can recall them when you need a gift.
  • Books: Buy from independent bookstores, this is the chance to browse through all those lovely covers and keep local bookstores alive
    TIP: Experiment with books that you don’t know but are drawn to, discover new voices or authors from other countries
  • Wrapping: no need to spend money on new rolls of wrapping paper, just recycle newspapers or old magazines.
    TIP: Try to personalise the wrapping paper for the recipient (it is a very mindful activity for winter nights:)

Receiving

Actually reducing the number of physical presents received is quite a lengthy process as culturally we feel we should not to come ’empty handed’.  In the past, I’ve written emails to family and talked with friends to try and gracefully explain that I value experiences over material gifts. Slowly the idea is making its way and I have the secret conviction that it will inspire them too;)   The experiences I received and participated in were super fun and created memories I’ll not forget like going to London for an incredible workshop with my favorite author or exploring the Japanese gardens with friends:)

Another idea is instead of people searching for a gift, to tell them upfront you would prefer to receive some money for you to give to your favorite charity. Alternatively,  you can ask the person to use the money they would have spent on your gift on their favorite charity or to support their favorite artist on Patreon. They have more say on where the money goes and it is a win-win for everyone.

I’d love to hear more ideas! How do will you make your Xmas shopping more intentional this year?