14 December 2018

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (a review of the audiobook)

Over the summer, in the chaos and hectic days of moving from Florida to Puerto Rico, I spent four months renting a house in my Dad's neighborhood so my son and I could have family right across the street while my husband located the perfect home for us. During that time, I was remotely helping my in-laws' Boston boating business during the extremely busy summer season, so I decided to enroll my son in a monthly summer camp. Thank God for that summer camp for him, and for me, Audible.com saved my sanity as well during my short breaks throughout the day. This excellent memoir of Cheryl Strayed kicking butt and walking miles after unforgiving miles following some of the most difficult and emotionally tangled and destructive points in her life, were astounding.

There were so many times over the years I had planned to read this. Stumbling across the memorable cover in a bookstore, or kicking myself when the movie came out and I thought to myself, "I have to read this before I watch the movie!" Which then meant I always kept putting it off. And I did miss out. I didn't realize then what I know now, which is that I needed this book. I needed to hear what this woman chose to do after all of the events in her life up to that point. I could have used this memoir to inspire me after my own separation and divorce almost two decades ago. I was so impressed by Strayed's decision to do a thing so wildly different than what the average individual struggling with a sudden and unexpected, devastating loss of a parent, followed by the downward spiral into drug addiction, along with her infidelity to her young husband (who, I felt, she treated fairly and respectfully throughout the memoir, owning her failures and mistreatment to him). I was wrapped up in this woman and her feisty and unsure decision to just walk, with a (to be expected) sometimes naive assumption of hopeful results, an overwhelmingly heavy pack on her back, but with a vigor and a faithfulness in this dream. As I listened to the remarkably narrated audiobook, I thought to myself, "why didn't I do something like this years ago? When my mother passed and my former husband and I had just divorced? Why didn't I do something different, something wild, to follow my instinct and guts, to throw it all out the window and just be?" I regret the years I didn't read this. I am confident this would have propelled me into something different at the time, something new. 

I wept for Strayed when she encountered one obstacle after another as she walked the trail, I cheered her on to continue when she screamed out in disgust or anger or frustration, and I was madly obsessed with her overall willingness to just keep going. Because that's exactly how life is, isn't it? Somehow, we just keep plugging along, one foot in front of the other, trying to make the best out of all of the messes we create. In a vague and long life, we just make it happen, we just do it. In Strayed's time of just over 3 months to walk the Pacific Coast Trail, her life was singularly isolated and compacted into that stretch of trail, and she could view all of the missteps and mistakes, and identify some of the choices she now needed to make.

Books were a necessary weight for her, and I would feel the torture of painfully ripping pages out after she was done with it to make fires and relieve the burden on her back. She could never carry more than what she needed, and this human filled with flaws, regrets and hope, legitimately walked it all. She wasn't one of the many who would frequently stop and spend nights in a hotel. She had nothing except a self-esteem filled with confusion and sadness, and you certainly can't pay for a hotel room with that. So on she walked, 1,100 miles and 94 days, alone, hungry at times, with some pretty bad wicked blisters to contend with. But she never, ever gave up. Not once.

Side note: Following this book, I listened to Bill Bryson's A Walk through the Woods of the Appalachian Trail, and all I could think was, "Cheryl Strayed could beat Bill Bryson any day." Either by walking trails and writing. Sorry, Mr. Bryson, but I'm team Cheryl all the way, forever and ever. She didn't walk during the day and spend nights in hotels. She was an all out bad ass.

(Click here to follow me on Goodreads or click here on Audible.com to listen to a sample.)

Wild is a powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an 1100-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe - and built her back up again. At 22, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State - and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone. Strayed faced down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
Movie thoughts: I watched Reese Witherspoon in Wild, and I think she knocked it out of the park. It was intense, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and filled with guilt so intensely felt that I owned this author's pain, once again. It was a beautiful adaptation. A movie just as good as the book. 

About the Author (from Wikipedia)
Cheryl Strayed is an American memoirist, novelist, essayist and podcast host. The author of four books, her award-winning writing has been published widely in anthologies and major magazines. She's amazing, and her actual bio (click here) is chockfull of all of her incredible nuances, life lessons, and general insights into her incredible personality.

Follow the author:

12 December 2018

I'll be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara

If you’re a true crime fan, stop reading this and just pick up I'll be Gone in the Dark. Now.

Even if you have zero interest in true crime, I urge you to read this. Read the enthralling words Michelle McNamara so easily placed on a page, that made it so easy to read and to become invested in. Her honesty in her writing will suck you in and I have no doubt you will finish this book quickly. And I hope it will remind you of one thing, so very important in today's new world. We have to be vigilant, to watch over one other. Don't cast away something that might be a key tip in a case. It might be nothing, or it could be the tipping point. McNamara's quest to solve this case makes me sit in awe and wonder of her dedication and reminded me that whether we like it or not, we are all responsible for each other.

With the increased popularity in true crime podcasts, or documentaries such as "Making a Murderer" and blogs like McNamara's own True Crime Diary bringing cold cases to light, it is absolutely pivotal that we each take an active role in our communities. It is our responsibility to pay attention, to be aware. Make the phone calls to police if we have seen anything. Don't let our insight or an icky feeling we have about something we've seen sit idle. It is our job as caring people and good citizens, partners in this world against evil, to tell that "thing" to someone, whatever it might be, to relay what we know to the authorities and then stay on top of it. Be active. Fight crime, no matter how small you think it might be. We no longer live in a time where we can brush it off and say something ridiculous like, "I don't want to get involved."

McNamara coined the name the Golden State Killer in 2011 and her book, published posthumously, was partially finished when she tragically passed at the young age of 46 just a couple of years ago. She died in her sleep, a combination of regular medicine to help her get some rest after night after night of insomnia as she managed victim's phone calls, pursued clues, got close to writing deadlines, and she took what seems to me a regular amount of medication to finally get the rest she needed. But with an undiagnosed condition of artery blockage, the medical combination resulted in her to not survive that much needed rest she needed. I remember the news and I was stunned. It seemed an innocent combination, and that doggone undiagnosed medical condition messed everything up. It made me ponder at what might have been.

Gillian Flynn, author of one of my favorite books Sharp Objects, (side note: I pretty much skipped as many networking business meetings in Las Vegas years ago as I could so I could contentedly sit in my hotel room by my window and occasionally stare at the gorgeous mountains while reading a book that was so intensely dark and amazing). Flynn wrote the introduction and covers her admiration for, and friendship with, the gutsy and dogged author. I'll be Gone in the Dark is so incredibly well-written, I finished it on, coincidentally, my recent vacation to Vegas last week. (Another side note: apparently my new tradition is to read dark tales while visiting Sin City).

The blogging community was small when McNamara first started, and I wish I had learned about her at the start. This is the type of work, the pursuit and obsession I envy and would have likely devoted time to as well, had I been structured and focused. I probably would have emailed her to ask how I could help. I could have created spreadsheets for her and basically even just gotten her a virtual cup of coffee if she needed it. I wish I knew her back when I blogged consistently, this woman who was basically a detective/investigative journalist in her obsessive and incredible search for the truth of the Golden State Killer.

I have an idea, but I would love to know what her reaction would have been to know that the man who attacked one right after another, sometimes in the same neighborhood or close proximity to another victim (even two who were in the same carpool) during his terror in the 1970s was FINALLY arrested this year. The same man who in 2001, at the age of 55, called a victim who he hadn't spoken to in 3 decades and re-victimized her all over again by whispering in clenched teeth over the phone to her about her fateful night with him decades before. I imagine McNamara would have been working on adrenaline, fear on making sure this was definitely the right man, but also a slight amount of guarded excitement. The man was unmasked. He had "walked into the light," as the letter at the end of her book had persuaded. She wanted this answer, needed this name. She deserved it, along with the investigators and others who searched so diligently.

Michelle McNamara was a true crime fighter. She embodied it, invested her life in it, obsessively investigated just as any police detective on a case still does, years after it's gone cold, a case that haunts their days and nights. It mattered to her, the victims and the families, and it especially mattered to her that the East Area Rapist/the Original Night Stalker was found. This guy was as prolific and as predatory and as scary throughout the state as one can imagine and he brutally terrorized his victims. Had she not passed at 46 a couple of years ago, I have no doubt she would have been the one to find him, or at least be an active partner with the detectives, sitting in the car with them and jotting notes down, her adrenaline pumping during their surveillance, and who eventually arrested him in April of this year. She worked so closely with those investigators, and her incredible research team of Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes who finished her book and did one hell of a fine job with it. When the detectives knocked on Joseph James Deangelo's door to take him away, I can imagine the words she would have crafted to power through her tears of angry and fulfilled satisfaction. I don't know if she would have felt done with it all, but she would have been able to begin mapping out this man's life with the dates she catalogued and her theories and other's' speculations to see what they were right or wrong about, to learn about each part would catapult their new knowledge and expertise for the next case. This new knowledge would be powerfully executed in their next investigations. It would have been an empire of closures sought, vengeances wrought, and criminals found and convicted. I just know it.

This story is phenomenally told, extremely well-written, and the image of her dedicating the past six years of her life to this case, to solving it and bringing closure to this group of people who experienced such terror, is so incredibly honorable, I can only sit at my own laptop and wish I could be a little bit like her. She mastered the art of "laptop sleuthing" a cold case and managing the "intersection of modern day technology." She would search the Internet for hours on end to find stolen items that might be a victim's taken during one of these crimes from decades ago, or she would diligently go through thousands of names and eliminate each name one-by-one. This multi-faceted devotion to solve the case paints the strong picture of how much she cared, REALLY cared.

There's no other way to describe her, in my opinion. She's a hero. She's an honest-to-God downright American hero. My description of her might make her laugh, or shrug it off, or think I've gone bonkers, but hey, I've had this teeny blog of mine for almost 10 years and all I do is write reviews. I write whether I liked or didn't like a book. I went through Stage 3 cancer, chemo and radiation, and even though it's all in my rear view mirror, I look at my blog and think, "what now?" What can I do to make a difference? I never used my blog for the pursuit of knowledge and justice. She did. I cannot stop thinking about all the work she did. I'm not speechless, I'm instead filled with accolades and downright respect to her because she turned her work, her captivating writing into something that really mattered, something that helped others. She worked side-by-side with detectives, became friends with them and the surviving victims and their families and really, it seemed she was the conduit between investigators and victims and all of us. Her place in this world was set, and now there is a void, a significant one. Her writing is penetrating, starkly relatable and her passion is powerful.

Always fascinated by true crime and especially unsolved murders ever since a neighbor was brutally killed and the killer was never found, she skillfully used today’s online world to kick some serious laptop sleuthing to uncover clues and ask the question over and over again, “who did it?” Who was this man? Joseph James Deangelo. He's 72. He sits in jail and I don't believe he's entered a plea yet. He can't use old age to try to minimize his sentence. He needs to plead guilty to everything, and he needs to provide an allocution, an explanation why for each and every horrible act he committed. Victims need to know this, criminologists need this to confirm their theories. We need to know. We need to learn so we can be better at figuring the next one out sooner. We need to be passionate, to take McNamara's vigor and find our own passion and ultimately help each other.  That's what we all can do now. 

Final side note because someone will ask: Michele McNamara was married to Patton Oswalt, Hollywood comedian, actor, and father of their young daughter. He's so funny and the bottom line is he was in love with his pretty bad ass wife.

About the Author
Just check out her site True Crime DiaryGet her book here or listen to the audiobook hereShe's incredible. 

29 November 2018

An Update on Life in Puerto Rico - a journal entry

I love it here.

Do people move at their own pace? Yes. Can it get frustrating when there's maybe a better way, a more efficient way, of doing something? Yes. (I'm recalling the vet clinic or dropping the Toyota off for servicing, that didn't have appointments, so you just wait all day until it's your turn... so yes, that was frustrating. I did roll my eyes all the time, which I'm now embarrassed about). It isn't called "island time" for nothing (and hey, there are a ton of things back in the States that I would shake my head at and think it could have been done better). But who says my way is the right way anyway, you know what I mean? Are people really nice here? Yes. Are they understanding when you try to speak Spanish and you can't and they do their very best to trip over their own English and go out of their way to help you? Yes. I had my own culture shock when first moving here and about a month ago, according to my
journal, that culture shock just stopped. I fell in love with the house even more so, I loved that the weather was cooler and the mosquitoes were on hiatus, and I relished in the slowness of it all. I started recognizing people in town and saying hello and stopping to talk with them. I'm so thankful to my husband, Jason, for providing us with this new chapter in our lives. I love our new home and I love this new change in thinking. I learned you can't live here with a cocky attitude, or frustrated all the time at the differences. You really do have to just shed the old world for how things are here, and just accept that things take longer, or that it's just different than the way you might have done things. It's different. We're not going to change the cultural flow of things here, so it's best to just ride the wave and not fight it. Things are different everywhere in the world. That's why I was so excited to come here, for Dominic to experience this. It's only been 3 months, but we're now finding a rhythm, a routine and now it feels like home. We have our favorite spots, and we know which way to go now without using the GPS (and that is an achievement)!
We love the cat and the cat loves Dominic!
We wanted this new experience in our family's history together. To do something different, to try something new, to experience something that we would remember forever as a family. That's what I remember as a kid growing up with my family in the Philippines or Venezuela or Greece. Sort of throwing away that first-world luxury and expectation and sometimes, arrogance. I'm ashamed by my own attitude when first moving here, how frustrated I would get (in my meager defense, I did have over 70 mosquito bites, after all). In 3 months, I've learned a lot about myself, my own level of patience, my approach to things. It's weird how it just happened, and I hope I stay this way. The things that used to annoy me so quickly are totally fine now. I'm not flaunting my supposed knowledge on how someone can do it better. Who cares? Let it go. And who says I'm right anyway?

Everyone can learn to change, can learn to adjust to new
things. It's not always fancy in the world. And so I absolutely can state that I love it here and am so excited for all the adventures we've already had and the new and fun ones soon to come. We've been through a lot in the past four years, with the cancer I had and the double mastectomy, chemo and radiation that consumed us for two years, and with Jason starting a new job right after that in which the first year he was only home on weekends. We've been through a lot, and we are thankful to God for this opportunity. We love it here. We have a chance to be kinder, to be happier, and to appreciate life.

We are all in.

02 October 2018

Life Right Now... in Puerto Rico

folios and traveler's notebooks by Sojourner USA
There is always a reason for why things happen.

Life is a completely different experience right now. With an incredible opportunity that my husband had, we made the decision to move for the next four years to Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that is a United States territory and found a beautiful 100-year-old home on the southwest part of the island on a mountain. In the past two months of our new life, we've had several moments of pure glee at our new experience, and then moments where we dearly miss the comforts of the States.

Here's a quick overview of life: I was born in Manila, and lived in Venezuela and Greece. I grew up in Maryland, married once, divorced once, moved from Maryland, to Virginia, to North Carolina, to Minnesota, and then to Virginia Beach where I met the love of my life, married again, got pregnant through IVF treatments, and promptly had a gorgeous fat little boy who saved my life because he never wanted breast milk. Because if he had taken to my breast, it would have been an even longer time before I got that somewhat large lump rechecked. That means the evil breast cancer that had started in my right breast would have spread much more and much further than to 39 out of 53 lymph nodes in my right armpit. My story would have been very different. The Stage 3 breast cancer which required a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation, could have been even worse. So I will always say that my son saved my life. Because he absolutely did.

I've anointed our house as the "Hemingway Hideaway" since it reminds me of Hemingway's Key West home. The gothic beauty of vegetation and island life and palm trees and fruits dropping into our backyard is beautiful and extravagant at times, but there is another reality of living on a mountain without air conditioning on the main floor, without a dishwasher or garbage disposal, with a kitchen door that swings open easily to a gorgeous outdoor patio but also means those bugs and mosquitos and spiders I'm so scared of can also easily come right into where I live, too.

So, yes, that's challenging and different, but so hard to complain about because really - how can you complain when the view is beyond imaginable and God's artistry is so apparent? How can I complain when we have a pool that I can jump into anytime I want? Life here reminds me of all the many things I have always taken for granted living in the States. So this is my reminder. What my soul and spirit needed to become even stronger and thoughtful and aware. These are the things for which I wanted to come here, to raise my son here, for him to build his memory bank with moments of difference and language and beauty. I wanted to harshly remember that life is a luxury no matter where you live, that each breath is precious and that each place in the world can be different, unusual, quirky, delicious, frightening, fun, and always to be respected, even in the midst of homesickness and culture variances that make you doubt every decision made. The reminders that there is more outside of where you live and that one step outside the door each morning should bring you that awareness in some way.

Life in Puerto Rico in this mountain home is fun and crazy and frustrating. I don't know of anyone who really enjoys walking up the stairs and looking out onto the same balcony with the same incredible view that is only just a few feet from your bedroom and noticing that just past that open door, there is a five-foot boa constrictor very comfortably curled up on the corner of the balcony in the sun. That's not really a moment anyone seeks to accomplish, not a task on anyone's list to check off in a day, to try and figure out how to make a snake that big and that scary looking, go far, far away from your home and pets. But even in that, there was value, precious value in that crazy moment. For that moment is now a memory my son has tucked away into his memory bank, that he can draw on in the future to share with his friends and his family about his childhood. Even now, I laugh loudly about how my husband, son and I banded together like The Walking Dead, and with two hockey sticks and a trash can, we snagged and released that big boy back into the jungle in 22 minutes. Later, when the dust of the moment settled, it was an interesting feeling. We just encountered a boa constrictor. On our balcony. Our home. And we worked together. And laughed and high-fived that we accomplished this together and didn't run in fear. This is life now. It seemed familiar, it was our new world now and didn't seem like a big deal anymore.

Life is so sweet and precious. I know I took things for granted before and I will try harder in this life. So I'll take every single snake, mosquito and separation from the things I'm used to because God let me live one more day. Somehow I escaped a ride of cancer and chemo and much, much scarier things from the past four years, which are in my rear view mirror, and I can look at the snake on my balcony and not be all the way scared. I still experience doubt, anxiety, depression and fear in my vulnerable moments, and especially when I have my annual check-ups, but it feels further away from the quaking, dark hole of fear and despair, and closer to God. Closer to faith. It's happening, as I type these very words, that peaceful transformation of contentment flowing over me and I don't want that to end. I know I'll have my moments, the imperfections that make me human. But I believe I can do this. I believe I can choose faith over fear. I will try to practice yoga every morning on that same balcony. I hope for more good days than bad. I pray for those thriving with cancer each day and I will mediate and talk to God. I will be faithful to Him, my life, to my very dreams of creativity that I once tucked away, and I will devote everything to my incredibly strong husband and my life-saving son. I will give them my very all. Because everything was almost all taken away from me much too soon.

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