Braiding Sweetgrass: A Book For All of Us

How is your September going so far? I am feeling that in-between sense of the weather saying “Summer is still here!” yet the fall schedule has returned or is about to begin.

I’m enrolled in three Ayurveda classes at Yoga Veda Institute this term: Clinical Assessment, Chikitsa (Therapy),and Herbology II. Plus a few yoga teacher training classes. They started last week, but then here in the U.S. we had the Labor Day holiday, so this week there are no classes. And it’s hot here right now–sunny and in the 80s F. Since my daughter hasn’t started back to school yet, I want to go outside, lay in the hammock with a cool drink and a stack of books.

Which brings me to a reading recommendation:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer might be my top pick for nonfiction this year. Although it was written back in 2013, this title didn’t find me until this year. Knowing that Elizabeth Gilbert was inspired to write The Signature of All Things after reading Kimmerer’s earlier book, Gathering Moss, made me want to read Braiding Sweetgrass, which Gilbert also recommends. It’s an exquisitely written blend of personal narrative, myth, legend, history, indigenous wisdom, and science.

I thought I would like it, but more in “should read” sort of way. I LOVED and ENJOYED every page. Whether she shares about pond life, swamps, mountains, moss, salamanders, or maple trees, Kimmerer’s rich storytelling sparkled and her connection to and love of plants and the planet are riveting.

She describes experiences of gently introducing her ecology students to the natural world. She relates how raising her daughters in Upstate New York makes her think of how the earth is a good mother. We learn about endangered Black Ash tree and the symbiotic relationship between the trees and indigenous basketweavers. She describes walking through wet, mossy cedar forests in the West, feeling the land loving us back in the garden harvest, and planting sweetgrass in places it used to grow.

What I appreciated was how she shared the earth-honoring values of the indigenous peoples who lived on Turtle Island long before white people did. The beauty of ceremony and ritual, the thoughtfulness of the traditions, and the deep respect and care for all of nature is a way of life we need to return to. So do yourself and nature a gigantic favor and please read Braiding Sweetgrass, unless you have already!

I’ll end with a favorite quote from the chapter “Asters and Goldenrod”:

“That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other. Science and art–matter and spirit, indigenous knowledge and Western science–can they be goldenrod and asters for each other? When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response.”

(p.47, Braiding Sweetgrass)

I hope you can read this book, and if you already have, please share about it in comments!

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The Art of Loading Brush (A Book Review)

Every time I finish reading something from Wendell Berry, his words and ideas tumble inside my head for weeks afterward. What a gift he is to us and how much the world needs to listen to what he says.

This is a man who has lived longer than most of us and has seen the devastating changes that have taken place in his community and in rural America over the decades since industrial farming became the norm. He has seen land abused and soil eroded and degraded. He has witnessed generations of farmers go from being able to make ends meet with help from their strong, caring communities to farmland and farming equipment becoming so expensive that hardly any young people can afford to purchase a farm.

Wendell Berry is a farmer so he understands farming and has many farming friends and family members. In The Art of Loading Brush, he advocates returning to a slower pace of living, smaller family-run, biodiverse farms, and farming with an attitude of just enough instead of the “Get Big or Get Out” way of doing things that became popular since the 1970s. He looks at the Amish communities as examples for rural communities that have broken down. He says one question the Amish ask whenever they consider a change is, “What will this do to my community?” Rural America’s failure to ask this simple question has been to the whole country’s detriment.

Another important theme in Berry’s essays, letters, and fiction is having a strong local, food secure economy. What sense does it actually make for agricultural communities to grow crops or raise livestock and then sell them to some far off place so that the people in their own communities have to truck in food from far off places? He says that puts us in a very dangerous place should the supply chain break down. And we’ve seen this happen around the country during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic! The more I read his words, the more I wonder where our common sense has gone to.

Thankfully, I know there are family farms in the Finger Lakes region that read Wendell Berry, align with his philosophy, and are providing food to people in their own communities.

As person living in an agricultural district, (our home is surrounded on all four sides with mostly corn and soybean fields) I cringe at the way the land is treated. Just last night, there was a huge tractor spraying the fields with what I assume is some sort of weed killer, like Round Up. It made me so upset that they aren’t required by law to inform neighbors that they’re spraying! And I think of the harm these chemicals do to the bees, butterflies, birds, land, water, and, of course, to us.

But my true nature isn’t the yelling, sign holding activist–although I’ve done this too! Instead of taking to the streets, Wendell encourages us to actually make the changes that we want to protest about in our own lives and homes and with our own families.

Take care of the earth. Cut out waste–be thrifty and frugal. Love and connect with our neighbors. Slow down and think before we act! (And I recommend reading The Art of Loading Brush and all of Wendell Berry’s other books!!!)

Hollywood Park (A Book Review)

I just finished a new memoir that I want to tell you about. It’s called Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett, published by Celadon Books. From the description, I wondered if it would be such a troubled tale my HSP heart couldn’t take it, but, thankfully, I was wrong. Mikel writes with such beautiful sensitivity, making each part of his story alive and present to the reader, that even with the difficult subject matter, a courageous thread of hope runs through.

This is the story of a man who spent his first few years of childhood being raised in a group setting by people other than his parents in the cult Synonon. It’s how, after leaving the cult, he and his brother live with a mother who is mentally ill and abusive. It’s how Mikel interacts with and learns from his dad. How he makes it through his teen years with the pain he carries and ultimately, how he has to decide to keep hiding it or how to face it, work through it, and let it go.

And if you’re interested in musicians and bands, you’ll enjoy the last third of the book which weaves in and out of Mikel’s experience as a singer/songwriter and frontman for the band Airborne Toxic Event.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., and Hollywood Park is a positive story about how mental illness (and addictions) can affect families as well as how healing can take place. I highly recommend this book!

(I received an ARC from Celadon Books for my honest review; all opinions are completely my own.)

Good Boy (A Book Review)

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new book, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, shares the story of her beautiful, complicated, transitioned life with dogs as constant companions. She starts with herself as Jimmy, a young boy who learns to hide who he wants to become from both his family and friends. The fear of being rejected keeps Jimmy from sharing his secret with anyone, even as he becomes an adult.


Jimmy’s transition to Jennifer is infused with humor so it’s not too sad or serious. Although I’m not a dog person, I truly enjoyed the cameos of her different dogs, their unbelievable quirks, and hilarious escapades. There is a dog person vs. cat person essay that is spot-on.

Good Boy is a story that will likely resonated with many people who are transgender or who are considering this step, as well as their families and friends. It gave me a lot of insight into the inner struggle a person has as they wrestle with this decision, and try to figure out who they can trust, who they can tell.

The author shares with such vulnerability and openness that I was immediately captivated and I think you will feel the same. If you’re interested or curious about transgender issues and/or if you love dogs, you will thoroughly enjoy this book!

(I received an advanced reading copy from Celadon Books in exchange for my honest review.)

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

With so much of everyday life feeling upside down right now, I am doing my best to keep my life as normal as possible. This includes getting up early for yoga and meditation, eating meals at nearly the same times each day, and reading as much as I did before. (Or maybe a little bit more!) Reading relaxes, comforts, takes me out of my own story, and connects me with people past and present whose stories and experiences are different than my own.

So what have I been reading?

The first is Kitchen Table Sustainability: Practical Recipes for Community Engagement with Sustainability by Wendy Sarkissian, Nancy Hofer, Yollana Shore, Steph Vajda and Cathy Wilkinson.

My lovely boss recommended I read this to better understand the way our local non-profit works and to help me see what can happen when local residents are engaged in projects that bring improvements to their community. (Thank you, Theresa!)

These pages contain stories of what worked and what didn’t. I learned that it is much better to go into a community that may have high poverty and crime rates, for example, and look for the assets already there, rather than simply focusing on the needs. What might those be, you ask?

Local people have untapped practical skills and know what they would like to change, but they have to be asked, to be consulted, rather than ignored in favor of bringing in “the experts”. They need encouragement in order to be confident enough to speak out, because they don’t want to appear foolish in front of others in their community. Engaging local residents requires patience and careful listening as people share their ideas. It requires connecting people to each other. It requires long-term thinking. If you’re involved with your community in any way, I highly recommend this book!

For a fast-paced thrilling read, here is Hide Away by Jason Pinter. Introducing Rachel Marin, a strong woman with a violent, tragic past that she is trying her best to forget. She is doing her best to care for and protect her two children and live as normal a life as possible. But she has this impulse to stop crime when she sees it. So she gets involved in helping the police with a murder investigation and things get a little scary.

I enjoyed the ease and pace of reading, Rachel’s strength of character, as well as the personalities and dialogue of the two police officers working on the case. This is going to be a series, apparently. It reminds me a bit of Dean Koontz’s Jane Hawk series, so if you like those books, you will probably like this as well!

Did I tell you I’m reading through the Bronte sisters’ novels this year? So far I’ve listened to the audio versions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Shirley. The first two were re-reads, but I’d never read Shirley before.

Set in Yorkshire, on the moors, during 1811-1812. There was a lot happening then: the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, an industrial depression focused in the mills, and the Luddite uprisings. If you’re interested in history, this novel could be a springboard into all of these subjects. Against all of this political and economical upheaval is the story of two young women who are finding their place in the world, falling in love, dealing with family, suffering losses, and discovering their inner strength. I’m glad I read it and, if you’re a Bronte fan, put this novel in your TBR pile.

So that’s a little taste of what I’ve been reading lately. What have you been reading?

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You’re Not Listening (A Book Review)

If there was ever a book that was written for our time, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy is one. It brings to light the modern epidemic of short attention spans and our lack of listening skills, shares why we need to be listening, and offers ideas on how to listen better.

Truth: I am not as good a listener as I thought I was. Sometimes I think about my to-do list when I should be listening. I’ve occasionally texted while someone was talking to me–something I swore I’d never do. There are times I finish my husband’s sentence, thinking I’m helping. I’ve interrupted and talked over the top of him or my kids.

All of this bad behavior has come on gradually, and although I wouldn’t blame my smartphone, I have definitely gotten worse since I started using one.

But I don’t want to be this person and I’m sure you don’t either. I want to show people kindness and courtesy by giving them my undivided attention, not to check out mentally if they meander or take longer than expected to answer a question. The good news is that listening is an art that can be improved upon with practice, just like any other skill.

One of the first things I learned in this book is that when two people are engaged in healthy conversation their brain waves sync up. And that this requires empathy which you learn or don’t learn in the first year of your life, based on how well your caregivers paid attention to your needs. Even if you didn’t experience this kind of attention as a child and develop good listening skills, you can acquire the ability to listen through deliberate practice later in life.

Another thing I learned is that if someone is boring you in a conversation, it’s most likely your fault for acting disinterested, or for assuming you already know what they’re going to say. If you approach every interaction with another person with curiosity, as an opportunity to learn something new, you will be surprised by what people tell you, and how interesting they can be.

One subject that is especially relevant in today’s polarized political climate is in the chapter on “Listening to Opposing Views”. The author writes that when we hear someone talk about something which we disagree on, our natural response is to get defensive because our brains experience this as we would a physical threat. But by working through that instinct and actually listening to the person with another view, we will expand our understanding.

We may never agree, but we can “embrace the possibility that there might be multiple truths” (p. 88), and that another point of view is just as legitimate as our own. Don’t we all need to grow in this area?

I think the other chapter where my eyes were opened to my lack of listening skills was in the chapter entitled “Supporting, not Shifting, The Conversation”.

I learned that a support response is one “which encourages elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain greater understanding” (p. 137) which is pretty rare. Most of us take a shift response “which directs attention away from the speaker and toward the respondent” (p. 137).

So, for example, if your friend tells you about something that happened to him, you can either ask him another question about it to get him to elaborate further (support response) or you can say something like “Yeah, I had that happen to me…blah, blah, blah,” (shift response) and put all the attention on you.

One of my favorite lines is “Listening is about the experience of being experienced” (p.32). Listening is about connection, which, as humans, we all crave and need. Connection banishes loneliness and gives our lives a greater sense of purpose.

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters will be published on January 7th. I could go on with all I’ve learned and how much I think we need this book now. Instead, pre-order your copy, and let’s have a conversation about it in January. I, for one, will be listening!

Saint X (Book Review)

<a href="http://<a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1250219590/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1250219590&linkCode=as2&tag=lifeofkim-20&linkId=7bf3e133a18b21e6e50a0488d9c45b87">Saint X</a>""Saint X is one of the very few books I’ve read this year that I could not put down! The bright, tropical cover disguises the depth of the subject matter. For although it is a clever, suspenseful thriller, this novel addresses the evolution of self, the parent-child relationship in its various stages, the advantages and guilt of white, wealthy people, and the disadvantages of poor people of color on Caribbean islands and the rest of the world.

It starts like a film, zooming in to the fictional Caribbean island of Saint X. It’s the mid-1990s. The reader is introduced to a well-to-do white family from New York vacationing at a luxurious resort for their New Year holiday.

Alison, the elder daughter, is eighteen, pretty, self-absorbed, bored, and typical of girls of that age. The unusual one and the heroine is the younger daughter, Claire, or Clairey, as the rest of the family affectionately calls her. She is seven years old, has an unusual appearance, is shy, socially awkward, and appears to display possible OCD tendencies. The parents remain on the periphery of the story, and what we know of them is seen through the eyes of Claire.

The other main character in the novel is Clive Richardson, a young man who was born and lives on Saint X, and who, along with his friend, Edwin, becomes a suspect in Alison’s death. In comparison to the comfortable lives led by Alison and Claire, Clive is without the advantages that wealth can provide. He grows up without many prospects for the future, so after high school, he and Edwin find employment serving the rich white people at the resort. Which is how they meet Alison and become involved with her on the night she goes missing.

As the novel unfolds, we glimpse some of what Alison gets up to and who she interacts with in the days and nights leading to her disappearance and death. After her body is discovered, Alison and Claire’s parents are frantic to find answers, to discover who is responsible for their daughter’s death. Although Clive and Edwin did spend some time with Alison on the night she disappears, not enough evidence is found to charge them with her supposed murder, so it goes unsolved.

The novel moves forward to when Claire is in her mid-twenties and living a fairly normal life in New York City complete with a good job and friends. She calls herself by her middle name–Emily–in an attempt to put the past behind her. Except she can’t. She still longs to learn more about Alison, and more about why and how she died.

We flash back in time to the months immediately following Alison’s death when Claire’s parents are wrapped up in their own grief and she feels forgotten. Then we see her as she grows up, through all the awkwardness of adolescence and into young adulthood, and how she must deal with the way people treat her when they discover who she is. And even though she wishes she could forget, Alison haunts her wherever she goes.

So Claire is in NYC, trying to live like other people do. As a way to assuage her guilt for her affluent background, she moves into an apartment in a part of Brooklyn that is mostly inhabited by economically disadvantaged people of color. She is still socially awkward, so she doesn’t interact much with the other tenants in her apartment building, but she wishes she could.

Then, out of the blue, while taking a taxi home one day, Claire looks in the rearview mirror and is shocked to find that her driver is Clive Richardson–the man that she has always believed was involved in Alison’s death! Everything she lived through as the sister of a murder victim comes flooding back in that instant. She becomes obsessed with getting Clive to confess. She relentlessly stalks him every night after work. She finds out everything she can about him. Then she pretends to befriend him.

What comes of this obsession with and connection to Clive? Will he eventually confess to his involvement in Alison’s murder? Will Claire ever be able to heal and let go of the past? Ah, but that would be telling! That is what you’ll find out when you read Saint X for yourself.

I was very fortunate to receive an Advanced Reading Copy of Saint X from Celadon Books; however, all opinions are entirely my own. Saint X, written by Alexis Schaitkin, will be published on February 18, 2020 and I absolutely recommend this novel to lovers of mysteries, crime thrillers, and really good fiction.

Friday Favorites (Links I Love)

This is where I share inspiration from the week–podcasts, books, music, art, movies, food, and more!

FOOD

Alan and I made a fantastic new vegan gluten free soup recently in the Instantpot. Although I’m not much of a gadget person, since my mom gave me an Instantpot, (thanks, Mom!) we gave it a try and the soup was amazing. Honestly, I probably could’ve made the soup just as quickly on the stovetop. It’s not “instant” at all.

First you have to wait for the pressure to build (about 20 minutes), then it cooks (about 25 minutes for this particular soup), and then the pressure slowly releases (another 15 minutes). But it would come in handy if I was cooking several dishes at once and needed an extra burner.

Here is the soup recipe for Cozy Autumn Wild Rice Soup from Gimme Some Oven. This is one vegan soup that is so creamy and delicious it can fool the dairy eaters in your life.

BOOKS

I have four great books to share with you and I recommend all of them. Yes, all of them! They are like vitamins that will boost your nutrition in different ways.

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon can be read in about an hour. If you’re an artist, maker, entrepreneur, influencer, etc., grab this book and prepare to be encouraged. Kleon’s ten ways are so helpful to be reminded of: The first one is that “Every Day is Groundhog Day”, meaning every day we start over. Have a to-do list and work through it.

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra is also a shortish book. This book was the first I’ve read by Deepak Chopra, and it won’t be the last. The Laws include The Law of Pure Potentiality, The Law of Giving, and The Law of Intention and Desire. At the end of each chapter are several ways to practice and act upon what you’ve read. If you know you have inner work to do in order to develop a more mature character who can handle success, start with this book.

Body Thrive: Uplevel Your Body and Your Life by Cate Stillman is a 10-week introduction to Ayurveda. Since I am studying Ayurveda with Yoga Veda Institute, I absolutely wanted to read this to see what I was in for. In her straightforward, no-nonsense way, Cate shares ten ways to take your life to a higher level.

Where does she start? With earlier, lighter dinners, moves on to go to bed early, and start your day right. Ayurveda is super practical and gets right to work dealing with your habits and what needs to change in order to have a better life. If you need a wellness boost or want to learn more about Ayurveda, here is practical place to begin.

Emergence: Seven Steps For Radical Life Change by Derek Rydall is one of two books by this author I purchased this summer. There is so much in this book that was new to me and many things that aligned with what I learned while living much of my life in a Christian culture.

Some of the many valuable pieces of wisdom he shares on are: giving, generosity, visualization, and acting from where you want to be, not where you are. This book is great if you recognize you need to develop a more positive, grateful mind and attitude and if you have goals you are working toward but have a feeling it all starts with you. This book will show you the way!

PODCASTS

Brendon Burchard had a few recent podcast episodes that I listened to several times over: Developing Momentum helped me stay productive right before school started, and Take Back Your Morning are all about morning routines. This has been a theme in my life since starting Ayurveda school: I wrote about this topic in Monday’s post and did a Live video on Facebook about it last week.

OK, that’s it for now. I would love to hear about what’s inspired you this week.

One Book I Didn’t Finish and Why I Don’t Always Finish Books

I’ve heard nothing but high praise for The Huntress by Kate Quinn. Since I didn’t read The Alice Network, I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. I placed a hold at the library and as soon as I finished City of Girls (loved it!), I opened it up. Post-WW2, the Nuremberg Trials, two men on the trail of Nazi criminals, a woman fleeing from justice…It could be good, I thought. But six or seven chapters in, I still wasn’t feeling it, so I quit.

What I liked about The Huntress: the writing was solid and the story didn’t stagnate. From one chapter to the next, readers are introduced to the various main characters in turn, each round building on their backstories and moving the plot forward. There was danger, romance, and suspense: all the important elements in a novel.

What I didn’t like: Overall, none of the characters (except Nina) intrigued me or made me want to invest in the story. Also, the huntress is revealed right away, so there’s no mystery as to who she is. I guess the suspense is how she is going to be caught, but that took away a lot of excitement for me.

Also, this is dumb, but one of the characters is a young American woman named Jordan. The novel begins in 1946. Tell me who in white-bread America named their baby girl Jordan in 1928, which would’ve been the year she was born? I have a believability radar for films and novels and this was just off the charts unbelievable and silly. People were naming their girls Doris, Ruth, Mildred, and Betty in 1928–not Jordan.

I also didn’t care for the two men who are tracking down the huntress. Nothing particularly wrong with them, they just seemed run-of-the-mill stock military guys with no real personalities.

I may not have given this book enough time, it’s possible. If you liked it, please don’t be offended! We don’t all like the same things and that’s what makes reading and the reading community so much fun. I learn about books I’d never have dreamt of picking because other readers recommend them.

My reading philosophy is that life is short and there are too many books I want to read, so I better make sure they are books I actually want to read. Because my TBR is always growing, and I don’t read for a living (yet, anyway!), I want to read books that either captivate my attention with the characters or the plot. Recently I listened to the podcast episode of Getting Bookish With Shawna and Lizz where they talk about their DNF (Did Not Finish) books. You might enjoy this episode!

Are you a reader who has to finish whatever she starts? Or do you regularly say no to books that just aren’t for you? I find that the more I read, the more I discard. At least half, if not more, of the books I bring home from the library get sent back with only the first few chapters read.

I’d love to hear what you thought of The Huntress. If you read it, please comment below or tell me about whatever else you’ve picked up or discarded lately.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls (A Review)

Like many other Liz Gilbert readers, I couldn’t wait for the release of the novel City of Girls. Whenever Liz mentioned City of Girls on Instagram, she said it was going to be lighthearted and fun; she said it was going to involve theatre and showgirls; she said it would involve plenty of sex.

City of Girls has all of those elements and much more. The novel is written from the perspective of Vivian, a woman in her nineties, who looks back over her life from age nineteen and on. She writes about arriving in New York City in 1940 and experiencing a very different kind of life from the one she had previously known: sheltered, stuffy, unimaginative. She gets to know all sorts of colorful characters and lives wild and carefree for a time.

As the story unfolds, she makes and loses friends, survives scandal, lives through WW2, fashions a successful and creative career for herself, and, as she lives all these experiences, she learns to know who she is.

I loved the descriptions of old theaters and night clubs, the fashion of the various decades in which Vivian lives, the energy of New York City and how it changed over the years. Overall, the tone is positive, light, and joyful. But, if you’re worried, as I was, that the book is just fluff, think again. There is substance here. There are passages that I will read and reread. Oprah read one during her interview with Liz Gilbert on Super Soul Sunday. And here is words of wisdom from Vivian’s aunt, Peg, that resonated with me: (on page 327)

“You must learn in life to take things more lightly, my dear. The world is always changing. Learn how to allow for it. Someone makes a promise, and then they break it. A play gets good notices, and then it folds. A marriage looks strong, and then they divorce. For a while there’s no war, and then there’s another war. If you get too upset about it all, you become a stupid, unhappy person—and where’s the good in that?”

So, am I going to recommend this novel? Yes! If you’re a reader of fiction, add this to your TBR. Buy a copy or place a hold at your library, but definitely read it. Particularly, I think it’s an important read for women because it’s a story of strong women who lived unusual, successful, and satisfying lives.

And when you read it, comment here, send me an email or DM me on Instagram and let me know what you think!