Books that matter: Station Eleven


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Dear friends,

Station Eleven is a “pandemic book” that came out before the COVID-19 pandemic – and proved to be scarily prescient. While conditions in our world never reached the dire circumstances described in the book (95% death rate, the end of electricity, a plunge into primitive living conditions), I can better imagine such things happening now. What happens to a civilization when its people are totally unprepared for its collapse? How do we rebuild? How do we hold onto hope? Station Eleven offers insights into these questions without being preachy – the reader is given a lush description of this post-pandemic world, which encourages reflection.

The book begins with a performance of King Lear in a Canadian theater, during which the pandemic first takes hold. We follow the actors, audience members, and medical personnel as they grapple with this unexpected sickness that seems to be sweeping the population. Some are afraid, others are quick to dismiss it as nothing. Fast forward about twenty years, to a world without lights, gasoline, computers, supermarkets – the elements of “civilization” are gone. We join the “Traveling Symphony,” a group of itinerant actors and musicians, who are trying to keep the arts alive through performances of Shakespeare plays and classical music.

The members of the Symphony struggle with despair and hope, with trying to focus on beauty while surrounded with ugliness. They worry about staying alive, and what the world might be like in the future. Is there any point in carrying on? Will there ever be a breakthrough, a watershed moment when humanity will regain what’s been lost?

The narrative is very immersive, so the reader can imagine what it would be like to live in such a world – and the likelihood that these things could really happen to all of us. During 2020, many of us experienced the mental health challenges of navigating the mundane (procuring groceries) and the profound (millions of deaths, lack of a vaccine, no end in sight). What happens to the human spirit under such conditions? Do we give in to despair, or become our best selves?

While this book isn’t new, it’s not “dated.” It’s a favorite that I’ll be keeping on my shelf, and returning to. I encourage you to give it a read – and expect to be moved. You’ll be thinking about this book long after you turn the last page.

(This book was a Book of the Month offering in February 2015:




Books that matter: My Body


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Hello friends,

It’s interesting to me that I’m categorizing this book as one that matters – because I have ambivalent feelings about it. I would give it a 3/5 stars, but I still think it’s worthwhile and important for a lot of reasons. Few of these reasons have to do with the quality of the book … it’s more about the deeper cultural critique it invites, and how it affected me.

Emily Ratajkowski is a model and actress, most remembered for appearing topless in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” video. In this memoir (really more of a collection of essays than a continuous story), she reflects on her feelings about her body, displaying her body for the male gaze, and her frustration with her public image.

All of those things sound important – and they are – but I found her “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” tone really off-putting. Throughout the book, she emphasizes that she is beautiful, that she has a appealing body, and that she is widely desired; while these things may be true, I would have liked to see a deeper reflection on why these attributes give a person value in our culture. To me, she seems to take for granted that this is just the way it is, and that a woman’s path to power is pleasing men.

She writes a lot about power – her lack of it, her desire for it, and how she can increase her own confidence and sense of power through pleasing men. She has no problem with nudity, she says (multiple times), because for her it’s a way of using her body to “take back her power.” She touches on the paradox of this, that attracting the sexual gaze of men may not truly be liberating, but she doesn’t examine this deeply.

Most public figures write memoirs late in their careers, to share the wisdom they’ve gained along the way. Emily is young, and very much a work in progress. She has not yet parsed all the complicated meanings of body vs. mind and spirit, and how being identified primarily as a “body” disconnects her from herself and others (she frequently mentions a sense of detachment when she is being photographed nude). She is frustrated that others don’t seem interested in her intellect, but doesn’t seem to see how she has commodified her own body – the blame for that is laid upon culture, or men. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “blaming the victim” here, I just hesitate to see her entirely as a victim. She has participated in this system in the name of taking back her power, but in the end she feels powerless … I hope she takes a deeper dive into the “why.”

As a person, I didn’t like her (the “her” that comes through in her writer’s voice, anyway). This is not a person I would befriend, as I found her immature and shallow – but I can see the seeds of a deeper understanding of her own life, given time. The book raises more questions than it answers, but those questions are worthwhile ones. So if the book makes you think, you have not wasted your time in reading it.

I wish Emily well. I hope she continues to learn and grow.

(This book is available from Book of the Month as an add-on:




Pep talk: Betwixt and between

Hello lovely friends,

How often in our lives do we think, “I have arrived!” I’m guessing not often, for most of us. We see ourselves on a path, a journey to somewhere, but is there any “getting there?” Or do we just keep moving the goalposts?

I’m at a strange age right now – 60. I’m entering a stage of life where I’m no longer young, yet I don’t feel old. I suppose I’m on the brink of being a “senior citizen,” but I don’t yet embrace that identity. My grandmother, who lived to be 96, used to tell me that you always feel like the same person inside. I imagine her son, my 98-year old dad, feels the same. Even he doesn’t seem “old” to me.

Many of my students are also in one of these “between” stages – no longer a kid, but not quite feeling like an adult, not just yet. For many of them, it’s a time to experiment with being grown up, but they can still rely on family for support. Others find themselves having to practice adulthood before their time, before they’d ideally like to. Some of them are still searching for a soft place to land.

We have this cultural joke that “adulting is hard.” I remember really feeling like a grownup when I bought my first brand-new car, all by myself, without anyone else’s consent or advice. I chose the model and color I wanted, financed it myself. These events are scary, but also really liberating – a lesson in trusting oneself.

Perhaps that’s the mark of maturity – self-trust. We’ve all been let down, and wondered if we can ever trust others again (especially after a romantic failure), but I think the key to “moving on” lies in trusting yourself. I’ll choose better next time. I won’t be fooled next time. I will learn to be wary, in a healthy way, to ask for what I need, to refuse to be bullied or ignored.

The next stage of life is uncharted territory, but I’m so much wiser than I used to be. So are you.



Pep talk: The slump in the middle

Dear friends,

It’s midterm time! – also known as the point in the semester where many of us are feeling behind, and could really use a break (thankfully, WMU has a “fall break” in the second half of this week, which means an extra-long weekend. Would be nice to fill it with fun and leisure, but I’ll be catching up on work).

Most of our endeavors have this “slump in the middle,” don’t they? We reach a point where we are exhausted, and need to regroup, recover, reflect. It’s good to stop for a moment and take a sincere look at how we’re doing, mentally, physically, emotionally, and to consider what we need to be our better selves.

On a daily basis, I hit this slump around 3 p.m. I don’t know if it’s a blood sugar crash, or lack of sleep catching up on me, but I always feel like I could use a nap around that time. These are the times when I remind myself why I started the task in the first place. For longer endeavors, there will always come a point when they’re not as engaging as they were at first, not as fun as we expected them to be, yet we still have some ground to cover before reaching the finish line. We have to find our strength again.

Let’s take a minute to rediscover the joy in our routines.



Pep talk: Roadblock words

Dear friends,

I recently read the book Cultish:

and I was struck by a particular idea that the author shared. This book, subtitled “The language of fanaticism,” lays out the linguistic strategies used by people who want to control the thinking of others. The author outlines language habits of religious cults, MLM marketers, and other groups of “true believers,” and how they choose their words to persuade each other and to gain new followers. One concept she shares is “thought terminating cliches” – what I call roadblock words.

These roadblock words are words or phrases that are meant to stop you from thinking further. You’re supposed to bump up against them, then shut off your critical thinking process. Examples include “fake news,” or “it’s God’s will,” or “just do it.” You can probably think of many more – words that your parents said to get you to stop resisting their directives, words that you learned in organizations (company slogans are big here), or words that people are taught to use as a “mantra” to help fight addiction.

Roadblock words, in and of themselves, are not “bad” … they can be useful reminders to curb our behavior. But if we reflect on this concept, we can better recognize when we’re allowing these words to stop us from thinking further on an issue, to stop us from using our critical skills, to stop us from exploring new avenues. And if we can recognize when we’re bumping up against these words, we can push them aside, and refuse to allow them to control us.

I encourage all of us to take a moment to think on this, and to identify the linguistic roadblocks we use, and which are used on us, so that we can recognize and interrupt this process when it happens.

Let’s strive to be expansive in our thinking.



Pep talk: Enduring the wait!

Dear friends,

Time is a crazy thing. Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like forrrevvver between birthdays and Christmases? Grownups would talk about how fast time was passing, and that sounded bonkers. A day was a long time, a week even longer – and we had an eternity to wait before we were grownups too.

Ah, now we know. Time really does fly.

But here’s the thing – our culture has conditioned us to expect instant results. Everything has to be fast and easy, quick and effortless. So our sense of time gets bifurcated, split in two. On the one hand, time flies … on the other, results seem to come too slowly. We “cram” for exams, and feel angry that we can’t learn and process a lot of information overnight. We try to adopt a positive new habit, like eating well or exercising regularly, but give up when we don’t see instant results.

How do we deal with this? How do we stick with a process when results are slow in coming?

I like the old metaphor of sowing and reaping.

A farmer sows a crop, plants seeds in the ground. A slow process begins. With sunshine, water, and care, the seeds will sprout and grow. The plants will mature over a long season. Not all of the plants will grow to maturity (some will be washed away, some will be eaten by animals, some will dry up through neglect), but if the farmer perseveres, there will eventually be a crop to reap. Will it be exactly like the crop the farmer anticipates? Maybe not, but there will be more at the end than there was at the beginning.

In our modern culture, perhaps we have lost sight of this idea that every endeavor takes time and nurturing in order to mature. That we can do a little every day, and the positive effects will accumulate. We become frustrated too soon, and allow our crops to die from neglect – I do this, and I imagine you do too.

When the wait gets hard, when the results don’t come fast enough, I remind myself of this idea. The good stuff takes time, and the wait is frustrating – but that doesn’t mean I should give up. Most of the time, it means I need to stick with it a little longer.