What I Read in May

May was all about the home DIY projects (in progress, none finished, such is my life). DIY projects are actually really good for me in terms of reading because when I'm DIYing I'm all about the audiobooks. They are my secret DIY weapon, especially for painting. They actually make you want to go back to painting if you've told yourself you can only listen to the books while painting. Here's what I read/listened to in May. 

Books I read/Listened To  In May!

Books I read/Listened To  In May!

I Don't Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star by Judy Greer. Audiobook. She cracks herself up a few times while reading, which with some people would be eye roll inducing but I found just plain amusing. 

Not My Father's Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming. Audiobook. Honestly, one of the best memoirs I've encountered in a long time. It's not an easy read, particularly if you have a complicated relationship with your own father figures. It's powerful and compelling and I'm very thankful he wrote it. Audiobook highly recommended. I want Cumming to narrate my life. 

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Audiobook. I'm finally getting around to all of Gladwell's books and they are generally recommended. I listened to this while painting and running. His books are always interesting and he's a good reader if you grab the audio. 

How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing by Alison Freer. Interesting tips. She, of course, advocates for having your clothes adjusted by a tailor so they fit you perfectly, which isn't always practical for many of us. (I wouldn't even know where to find a tailor.) But also stain-blasting tips, etc. She's anti-Spanx (though she does like an old-fashioned girdle) but pro-granny panties. She believes you should hang absolutely everything, making her the total opposite of Marie Kondo (see below).

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution by Giles Milton. While I took a course on post-revolutionary Russia with an excellent professor, I've long forgotten much of what I studied and it never looked at this particular topic. I've read far more about Russian spies in England than vice-versa. And how the heck did I not know that Trotsky was detained in Halifax for three weeks during WWI??? Did I know and forget? It does not seem like the type of thing I would forget.  

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport. Audiobook (excellent narrator to boot). I accidentally had a revolutionary Russia theme this month. Interesting and sad. It's hard not to play "what if" and think about how different their lives could have been... What if Nicholas and Alexandra had been stronger leaders? What if their daughters had been able to go out in society? What if Alexei had not been born with hemophilia? What if Grigori Rasputin had never entered their lives? What if the household had not been hit with measles right as the revolution was happening, allowing them to escape? Their lives were undoubtedly privileged, but also very isolated and rather sad. 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Audiobook. This is one of those books that worms its way into your brain and you will keep thinking about it. I don't want to KonMari my entire house but it did make me want to go through my clothes and books. It has me rethinking possessions and thinking more about what I want to bring into my house. I might also be utterly fascinated with how she folds clothes. I possibly also have spent way too much time (and continue to) watching YouTube videos and reading articles by people who have started purging possessions after reading this book. 

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. Audiobook. I listened to most of this one on the train. I had planned to read an actual physical book but I was dealing with travel-induced vertigo that made reading a big no-no. Bleck. David and Goliath was interesting (as always) but I often found myself struggling to connect the stories and having to remind myself of the overall thesis. It just didn't feel as strong to me as his previous books. 

It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell. Audiobook. Reviews are mixed on this memoir but I rather liked it. That said, I'm not sure I'd have liked it as much I had read it rather than listened to it. The audiobook, at least, is recommended. 

I Let My Husband Put "Bad" Photos of Me on the Internet

My husband puts bad photos of me on the internet.

I don't consider myself an especially vain woman. I rarely wear makeup and in most of my selfies I'm not wearing makeup at all. I dye my hair but I wait so long between hair appointments that my roots can be measured in inches. And yet, when it comes to photos on the internet, I often despair when I don't have editorial control over photos of myself. And my husband? He puts photos of me on the internet that make me cringe. 

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From Instagram: "Posting a picture of lunch date!"

From Instagram: "Posting a picture of lunch date!"

When I look at this photo I see a huge forehead, tired eyes, and bad hair. He sees an unplanned and enjoyed working lunch date.

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At what point does caring about our appearance turn into vanity? I may not be wearing makeup in my profile image, and if you ask me I can point out the barely visible zit on my face, but I love that photo. I love the dress I'm wearing, which you can barely see. I love the necklace I'd never have chosen for myself, but was gifted by a friend. My hair is off my face. I have barely a hint of a smile on my face. I felt good that day and it showed. It's a selfie, as are most of my photos. If not for selfies there'd barely be any photos of me at all. 

From Instagram: "Life is short. Wear the pretty things. For no reason except they are pretty."

From Instagram: "Life is short. Wear the pretty things. For no reason except they are pretty."

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I don't consider myself especially vain, but I'm often keenly conscious of people's gaze. I tend to overdress rather than underdress. I recall visiting my father one weekend and not knowing we were going to a wedding. I ended up wearing a truly AWFUL outfit cobbled together from clothes in my suitcase and I felt the censor and judgement of adults. I was nine or ten but that feeling has never left me and being underdressed for any occasion makes me feel incredibly anxious. I want to look presentable. I want to look good. But learning to hold my head high when others think I don't, or even when I think I don't... there's value in that, too. 

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Earlier this year I was going through pictures from the previous year, gathering enough for a poster collage to hang on our wall. I had a low moment, when looking for any photo of myself that was not a selfie, I cried at my husband "Why do you never take good photos of me?" He was stunned. He doesn't see the photos of me the same way I see them. He thinks they are all worthy of a frame. 

It was a categorically unfair accusation. I'd wanted to stay at the castle-like Chateau Frontenac hotel in Quebec City since I was thirteen years old . He surprised me with a trip for my 35th birthday and took what is probably one of the best photos of me. Ever. It was taken as I sat in the window seat of our turret room, looking out at the St. Lawrence River below. I love the picture so much that I had it printed on canvas and it hangs over my dresser in our bedroom. 

From Instagram: "Sitting at the window staring out at the St. Lawrence, from our second floor room at the Chateau Frontenac... This will do nicely!" 

From Instagram: "Sitting at the window staring out at the St. Lawrence, from our second floor room at the Chateau Frontenac... This will do nicely!" 

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In the New York Times, Jennifer Weiner wrote an op-ed titled, "The Pressure to Look Good." She talks about how when someone disagrees with a woman's opinions their looks are often attacked and how cameras are now everywhere. We used to know the special occasions when we need to look good, but now? Every day is Class Picture Day. 

"Every phone is a camera. Every picture, or video, ends up on the Internet. Everyone, from your eighth-grade classmates to the wife of the guy you worked with 10 years ago, can see. And for every news story about Spanx giving up its grip (only to be replaced by slightly more forgiving yoga pants), or every real-size heroine like Mindy Kaling on the cover of InStyle or Rebel Wilson topping the box-office charts, it seems that here in the real world, the beauty culture has only gotten more demanding."

I can't disagree with anything she says in her op-ed and yet... I wonder. I wonder if it has to be that way. As I flip through photos of myself, even on my own phone, I marvel at how I can look so different from one day to the next, or even one moment to the next. Sometimes I can't comprehend how all these different images, how all these different women, can be me. The photos remind me that the me I see in my head is not always the me that exists in the real world. 

I can't control what others say about me, but I can control my reaction to their comments. But most of all, I can can control and silence the mean voices that come from within my own head. 

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My husband puts photos of me I do not like on the internet because he doesn't think they are bad. When he looks at them, he sees me while I see I double chin. Where I see the the jawline I hate in a profile shot, he sees a curve that he finds attractive. 

From Instagram: "It's true - she did find the hammock!" 

From Instagram: "It's true - she did find the hammock!" 

I hate everything about this photo, but he only sees his wife relaxing on a hammock after a day in the pool — something she absolutely loves. 

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The photos my husband takes aren't bad, they are memories. They are the small moments he wants to remember and share. 

I don't pre-approve the photos my husband puts on Instagram. With every "bad" photos, he's teaching me to see myself in new ways. Sometimes when I look at those photos later, I won't love them but I hope he never stops talking them. 

I "let" my husband put photos of me on the internet because when he looks at them he sees beauty. I'm trying to learn see myself through his eyes.

Pain Demands to Be Felt

I listened to to Alan Cumming's Not My Father's Son this past weekend. I find it hard to stop thinking about it. It's not an enjoyable book, though I could listen to Cumming narrate a book about just about anything, because a book about the abuse one endures at the hands of their father cannot be an enjoyable book. It's compelling. Cumming lays out the story in a way that makes you want to keep reading or listening, not because you want to know what happens—you need to know what happens. 

Cumming's book makes me think about how our fathers shape who are and who we want (or don't want) to become. For women in particular we so often look at our mothers but fathers... they shape us. His book makes me think about that. 

But mostly it makes me think about pain. 

*****

When I get hurt, my flight or fight response goes into hyperdrive. Unfortunately it skips completely over the flight part and goes directly to the fight. Somewhere inside resides someone a bit Hulk-like. You don't want to see her when she's angry, though I've been told it's quite the site to behold. I don't say that with any measure of pride. 

It took me a long time to understand her. I tried for a long time to control her without understanding her and that didn't go so well. I eventually figured out that she is a small, scared girl who acts only on instinct and that instinct is to protect and defend herself. Things got easier after that, though not exactly easy. 

Last week while we were cooking dinner, Lee accidentally whacked my elbow with the refrigerator door. It hurt. It was an accident. The anger inside me swelled up and I took a deep breath. Well, that's a lie. I swore loudly. Then I took a deep breath. Lee apologized, and I accepted his sincere apology, but he looked a bit hurt that it didn't immediately make it all better.

I understood.

It's hard to know that you have accidentally hurt someone and that you are solemnly sorry for having done so and that it doesn't make it go away. I did my best to explain I accepted his apology, really, but unfortunately the apology doesn't take away the physical pain. And I can't completely tamp down my instinctive reactions to pain. I have to work through it. 

Pain demands to be felt. 

*****

Something that impresses me in Cumming's book is the calmness of his reactions. He may go into shock or breakdown after the fact, but his ability to keep calm and not lash back in the moment is foreign to me. It's something I don't understand because it's so opposite to my own reaction. 

I envy his calmness. 

*****

We are who we are and our instincts are what they are. I can't choose my reflex. For a long time I didn't understand that and I tried to push it down and make it go away. I thought if I pretended it wasn't there, it wasn't. Except that was lie. 

Pain and anger are a messy volatile package and they make me feel shame. I get upset at myself for my (wrong) feelings and that is one heck of a horrible circle to get stuck in. In the past, I often felt like there was something deeply wrong with me, even more so because I couldn't magically make the pain and anger go away the very second someone apologized. 

I cannot choose my instinct but I can choose my actions. I can choose to close my eyes and take a deep breath (or five). I can choose to walk away from the situation. I can choose to let the pain wash over me and the anger roll through me without allowing it to take over. 

I can choose to feel. To breathe. To let it go. 

*****

John Green wrote in The Fault in Our Star that pain demands to be felt. All you have to do is go to Tumblr to see how much that resonated with readers.

We don't really have a choice about feeling pain. We can try to run from it. We can try to hide from it. We can try to out-stubborn it. It doesn't work.

Pain demands to be felt and so I feel it. I'm not always calm about it but more and more I'm learning that while I cannot choose whether or not to feel pain, I am in control of my actions. 

*****

Thank you, Alan Cumming, for your honesty. You shared your pain, and in turn helped me learn more about my own. That was a gift I didn't know I needed.