There’s so much I want to say about books. I’ve read a lot, but not enough. I buy as many as I can, but not enough. I have lists in my mind of what I want to read and also, what I want to share with my daughter, and okay, I will admit it, what I wish for her to read.
Reading is my calm place. And it is also a place I have a hard time going if I am not feeling calm. It was there for me growing up in a household that had a lot of unhappiness and isolation. It was there for me when I spent a decade or so in a relationship that had a lot of abuse, unhappiness, and isolation.
It is here for me now when I am clawing my way out of the nets cast by these things and when I have seen and experienced happiness, a family and household based on communication and quality time spending, and a community based on the thing I love and am told I am good at — writing.
It’s 2020. It’s time to open up the blank books of life and get started again, this time, I know, we all say, for real. This time, it’s the time. I started a nightly journal time with my daughter. This is bonding. This is healing past and current trauma. This is creativity and inspiration, for us both, me the poet, she the artist who as many have said, as I have seen, is also a poet.
Writing and reading go hand in hand. They build up each other. They tag each other and run around and tag each other again. I am going to focus this little essay on what I believe might be the books that shaped me somehow, throughout life, to make me this me that I am. Someone has called this her Book Family Tree. Adorable. And so it is.
This may seem odd, but I have to say Richard’ Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day really stands out as having a giant impact on me as a child. Primarily because I remember looking through this book then and thinking, “Is this really real?” and today I look through it and ask the same things. I remember thinking that it was amazing to have a book that asked a big question and then went about trying to draw in as much possible for an answer, and still not feeling like it was enough for me. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I still look around and ask this question, at almost 40, and I still do not know how to answer it with accuracy and clarity. What do people do all day? Think about it. Try to answer it. How ambitious!
This book, Behind the Attic Wall. There were dolls that talked. They were actually ghosts of people who had died. A married couple. A girl found them and hung out with them. Why did I read this book over and over and over again as a pre-teen? Therapists you know the answer. Along with this add: Emily of New Moon (Ten Times Better than Anne of Green Gables, Fight Me) , Little Women, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There, for those in the know just imagine it: these books were me, and are still me. My work here is done.
Oh guess who found Sylvia Plath in high school? This girl. Right here. Obviously. I was absolutely in love with her, with Ariel, with poetry, with words, with writing, with reading. High School took me to Sylvia, to Anne Sexton, T.S, to Poe, and fiction writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I also read Reviving Ophelia, as a 16 year old girl because that’s, I’m certain, normal, right? It saved my life big time. Major. Bless that book.
The most wonderful time of life. I was going to be an English major! I did not become an English major! But, I read like one. I read everything. I think a book that shaped my college life, or got me deeper into this idea of who I might be, or want to be, or how I want to write during this period of my life would have to be Isabelle Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Because damn. It has everything. It is epic. It is beautiful. And a bad movie was made based upon it that made me livid for its massive inaccuracies. I also discovered Sherman Alexie, the plays of Tony Kushner, and see below: Radical Feminism.
This is an essay for another time, but the books from this period shaped me deep. Radical feminism resonates with me still. Material Feminism. Marxist Feminism. Lesbian Feminism. I recommend reading all of it. Audre Lorde, bam, brilliant. Her essays and poetry. Adrienne Rich, check, yes. And giant books that I left behind and miss now, even though my lesbian days are done, but I miss having copies of the Woman-Identified Woman, I miss having copies of legit first edition 70’s feminism at hand to flip through and go damn, wow, yes, bring it.
I majored in Sociology and Gender Studies. So reading Marx was amazing. And this book that I still recommend today, School Girls, by Peggy Orenstein. Read it. Sure it might be ‘dated’ but the issues remain and go ahead and tag on a ‘some things got worse.’ A Sociology book that changed my life would have to be Ain’t No Makin’ It by Jay MacLeod, and also, any book about Labor Union History.
The post-college period where I was supposed to use my degree in Sociology to save the world and do social justice did not happen. Instead, it was nonprofit jobs that felt like they cared more about money and less about their grand missions and visions. So, I read a lot. I think I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X during this period, along with Assata Shakur’s Assata, and a lot of A.I.M stuff like Custer Died for Your Sins.
I went back to school. For my Sociology Master’s. I have that! I really loved reading Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, I loved reading Marx, still, always, and I loved reading massive books on Neoliberalism by David Harvey, Naomi Klein. I might not remember much else. That might be what happens after so much schooling, not sure.
I was on my way to getting a PhD, and then, life struck. Abuse struck. Isolation struck. Which brings me to the next period -
Disillusionment Period 2/Narcissistic Abuse Period 1/New Motherhood/Custody Battle/PTSD
Feeling isolated, unloved, aging, lonely, and feeling my baby clock ticking, I had to beg my then partner to let me have a baby. A baby that she now has tried to take from me multiple times in custody battle. A baby that she did not want and I had to beg her to let me have.
Sigh. Those days. What a mess. When you are financially trapped, isolated from people, from family and friends, and told you are worthless and dumb, it is not a good place to be or an easy place to leave. Especially when you believe the things the bully says about you, about the world, about what you can and cannot do, and then, when you have no access to money even the money you make — it goes into a joint account and you are not allowed to touch it.
So, this should not go in the ‘motherhood’ section but this early stage is such a blur. It’s a combo section, really.
My baby was my escape, my joy, my happiness. And I devoted my life to her. She gave me the strength to see the reality of who I was — a good person, a good mom — and to work to free myself from the abuse. But now, of course, she has to go back and forth and the abuse continues via her lawyer approved means, which I pray can cease and stop so that my child, my family, and I can have peace in 2020.
This period in terms of books that made me who I am, is huge in kid’s books. Goodnight Gorilla, a nightly hit, Peek a Who?, brilliant. Also I would read to my daughter every night, we co-slept in my isolation room, pretty much, until she was 6 almost 7 and the separation and having to leave her for long periods set in. I still carry so much pain about this time, as it of course, was terrible — the first time my daughter and I were ever separated in her life, and then, it just kept going, keeps going, now it is pattern, who knew the things one could live with and still survive, right? Who knew.
This was not in What Do People Do All Day, that is for sure. But I read to her — original classic fairy tales, and Alice in Wonderland, big books like this, and her favorite books, the Elephant and Piggy books by Mo Willams, each one a charming dream come true for parents and kids, really. She learned to read thanks to me, of course, props to reading to your kids, and to these books. I recommend them highly.
What did I learn from all of this? As way of wrapping up this part: Be aware of abuse, women can abuse, be aware of isolation, be aware of lies told about who you are, about the world, about your worth, and just do that thing we all know we are supposed to do: practice self love, value yourself, and I wish I had known more about Buddhism and this whole spiritual world that I am in now, because this would have helped. I tried. I remember I once got a copy of Nonviolent Communication to show this abusive person, and she screamed at me that she was not violent and how dare I say she was violent. She truly believed I caused her to be the way she was. Irony! Abuse! The worst!
I did discover books that helped me to see myself, free myself, and love myself, and protect my baby as much as I could during this time period.
Here, a screenshot from my Kindle to sort of give you insight into this part of my Book Family Tree.
Love, Marriage, Family, Spirituality and Stability Period (In Progress)
Here is where we are, and where I long to be. We made it this far, my baby girl is now 11. My home life is happy. Aside from constant struggle with custody issues and being dragged to court, I suppose. I am in a place where I feel like I have a career path, and a healthy almost marriage, and where I am growing as the mom of an almost pre-teen.
Books that I am reading now range from fiction, finally back at it, finally have enough peace of mind to get back to fiction; a lot of Buddhist books, and sweet biographies about people who changed my life, and the world, with their kindness and gifts. My daughter and I love the Gaither Sisters Series, One Crazy Summer and P.S Be Eleven, especially.
My love and I read together too. Reading is my love language, growing and learning is my love language, spiritual connection is my love language, and he is always interested in being a better human, as am I, so we have read a lot of Buddhist books together, How to Love and How to Fight, are really wonderful for couples.
I will leave you with a picture of some of my current reading, in between reading the amazing Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, and constant poetry, along with the Jim Henson biography, I am making it a goal to do daily readings — and then, wish me luck, writings, inspired by these one a day type books that can be like meditation, like healing, like focus, like spiritual nourishment.
Jenny Justice is a poet mom who brings poetry to life in ways that spark empathy, connection, joy, and feeling. You can read more of her poetry at Justice Poetic. Sign up for her poem a week newsletter here.