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A Choice that Bolsters All of Us: My Thoughts on Simone Biles and The Tokyo Olympics Team Gymnastics Competition

During my last season of gymnastics (four months of meets and intense training for those meets, stretching from January to my birthday in April, 1987), my closest teammate had a mental block. Her beam routine included a front flip, and for whatever reason, she became afraid of doing it. As I had my own block (the round off on my beam dismount) I had all sorts of empathy for her. As meets grew closer she would grow more and more anxious, but she always showed up to the meets and almost always nailed that front flip. But then, once in practice, she fell and injured her shin. She got x-rayed and since there was no break, she got taped up and kept going. That’s what gymnasts do.

AmyGymnastics11But as the qualifying meet grew closer, she struggled more. Then, at the start of one of our workouts during the week before the meet, the beam coach gathered us all to sit on the floor. She had this teammate stand in front of us, and told us what she’d done. At school a few days before, she’d walked through the halls, asking boys to kick her on her injured shin. Our coach didn’t explain why she might’ve done this, but she did say it was a disgusting thing to do; if she ever heard of anyone else doing such a thing they were now warned that they would be kicked out. This teammate was only being allowed to stay because no one had ever expressly had to say “don’t try to make your injury worse by having others hurt you.”

My teammate sat down next to me and I put my arm around her shoulder, but we could both hear the other gymnasts whispering. “Weird” and “creepy” and “gross” and “what’s wrong with her?” But as I had already also discovered self-harm, I didn’t have that response. Mostly I was grateful to know that I wasn’t the only one who was weird and gross in the same way.

The season continued, my teammate’s shin stayed taped, I never did get over my fear of my round off dismount. It was one of the reasons I got second in the all-around on my life’s last meet, instead of first like I was supposed to. Like real winners do. I did win first on bars, which was my favorite and best event, so I was OK because my beam coach was already disappointed in me, but my bars coach still had some respect.

After that meet, my teammate and I both left gymnastics. You’d think we’d stay friends, but somehow we didn’t. (I have searched for her on social media more than once and haven’t found her. I’ve also changed some of the details of her story, just in case.)

This story is both unique and commonplace. Unique in its details but commonplace because every gymnast has a similar story. More than one. Things that happened to them, things that happened to their teammates. I’m telling her story because it greatly affected my outcome as well, in ways I am still trying to understand.

Because here’s the thing: gymnastics is a complicated sport. It’s not just about back handsprings and front flips, Yurchenkos and Tkatchevs, wolf turns and triple pirouettes. It requires an enormous amount of mental energy to get your body to do things normal people would never try. You have to conquer rational fear and then train your body to work towards defying gravity for a few seconds, twisting or flipping all the while. With pointed toes and smile.

It is also politics: not everyone gets the same level of attention from coaches.

Who had the most expensive leotards. Whose parents put the most money into the booster club. Whose enormous cabin could be used for team retreats. Who the coaches like the best and think have the most potential (usually the ones with the richest parents). Who’s been loyal to the club for the longest. Who is most likely to do great things like become Elite or get a college scholarship or make it to Nationals. Who is willing to try anything, doesn’t express fear, does everything the coaches tell her to do.

Despite that, it’s also the deep connections you make with your teammates. The way you know the history of their injuries and how to tape them if a coach isn’t around. You know your teammates’ floor routines as well as they do. You cheer for them even knowing it means their win is your loss, because it also means their success is a win for the team.

I loved my decade in gymnastics. I learned skills that I still use today: perseverance, toughing it out, encouraging others, bravery. A sense of my body within the world and a sort of confidence that still helps me keep my head up. How to tape a sprained ankle and how to care for a deep bloody blister. A precise cartwheel.

But I also carry some pretty good scars. Self-doubt. Despair over every ripple and lump and extra pound on my body. Guilt that my parents paid so much for my gym time and then I didn’t get a scholarship like my mom so desperately wanted me to. A bone-deep shame. The ever-present feeling that I was destined for greatness but I didn’t get it because I was a coward, even while I’m the first to acknowledge that I was never going to be an Olympian or even an Elite. I was a mediocre gymnast who never conquered her dismount fear; I was the support staff whose time, fees, and body supported the real winners.

All of those feelings, positive and negative, are still here in my body.

So when I watch gymnastics, I always cry. My body remembers exactly how it felt to move in some of those ways. I wish I could still move in those ways, could still be lithe and strong and graceful. My psyche remembers the negatives, the bloody hands and wrists, the shame of not being great like those girls on TV are.

But I’ve never cried like I did last night, watching the Tokyo Olympics team round and Simone Biles walking off the floor.


Kendell walked in and caught me crying and asked me why. I couldn’t explain for a bit because the lump in my throat was so large.

After her vault, when she is talking in that rushed way with her teammates, Simone says “I don’t trust myself.”

That was when I started crying.

Simone Biles does some amazing gymnastics. She is strong, talented, and skilled, but no matter what it still takes bravery to do what she does.

Unless you have been a gymnast, it is hard to understand how brave she was to do what she did at the team competition.

All of those entwining emotions that go into gymnastics. The idea that your body must be sacrificed on the altar of gold medals. The way your coach can humiliate you by simply seeing you make a mistake you shouldn’t have. The way you both support and lean upon your teammates. Not to mention the fierce public eye, which must feel like it is always on her.

As a gymnast, you do your routines and your moves, you compete because at one point you loved this sport. It was fun and it brought you bliss, learning how to flip and spin without getting (too) injured. Defying gravity without a space suit. Dancing across the floor in a sparkly leo. That joy stays with you, but it isn’t always there. For coaches, for gymnastics clubs, it’s still a business. It’s still and always about winning, the work of winning, not about the joy of moving your body. It’s not completely or even mostly about you as a person or as an athlete, but about you as a winner. You are really, simply grist.

So there is Simone, at the Olympics. The Olympics team competition. There she is, and she is struggling. In an invisible way, in a way you can’t tape or stitch together, a way you can’t shake off. In her head. In her gymnastics self, which knows how to do the things she does with her body, she cannot make that connection.

Everyone knows the stories. Everyone thinks of Kerri Strugg doing her second vault despite her ankle injuries. Gymnasts just go on, anyway.

By withdrawing from the competition, Simone Biles did something so mind-blowingly brave. So brave.

By walking away, she said that she would not risk her body for anyone. Not for her teammates, who I know she loves. Not for her country, who loves her. Not for her coaches, who helped her get to that point. Not for that gold medal. Not for fame or adulation or endorsements.

Because her mental game was not there, she knew she was risking her body if she continued. And she was brave enough to break the gymnastics rule that says “you must always risk your body.”

That was why I cried while I watched it. Because I know how much courage that took. And because I know most of the world will not understand it, and will say awful things about her.

Because taking care of your own body as a gymnast is only supposed to be something you do to become a winner, not to not compete.


Many people will write about what happened in gymnastics during this Olympics. My contribution to this discussion is miniscule. But all night, I couldn’t sleep. I was full of…something. Both dread and awe. The memory of my teammate’s bruised shin. When I slept I dreamed round offs turning into cartwheels, over and over. 

But I am still adding this little bit. My voice to this conversation, because something shifted in me, watching her last night. Honestly, she’s never been my favorite gymnast (no one will ever replace Julianne McNamara for that spot in my heart), but that doesn’t matter. Last night, her bravery gave me just a tiny bit of grace for myself. For that part of me who is still 15, still facing down that dismount with my taped-up ankle and tiger claws on my wrists and perpetual wounds on my palms, who was lithe and strong and graceful but who boiled in shame anyway. The coaches and the teammates and even my parents couldn’t quite give me that grace to say I was anything worthwhile. I wasn’t great enough to matter, so what I did do was pointless: that feeling was what stretched and started to dissolve a bit, last night.

I wasn’t an Olympian. I didn’t earn a scholarship. I was a lowly class II gymnast. I didn’t sacrifice hard enough, I didn’t give enough, I wasn’t enough: I have carried that feeling for my whole life.

Her decision last night helped it weigh a little bit less.

Her decision bolsters all gymnasts.

In that moment, she chose what was right for her. That is never allowed in gymnastics, but she did it. Her choice tells us that we matter. Not because of medals or scholarships or rankings, but because we are individuals with bodies in the world. Because she matters—as a person, not as a medal winner—the rest of us matter too.

And it is why—not because of the five moves named after her—that she will always be the greatest of all time.

There Where You Have Landed, Stripped As You Are

You aren’t what they made you to be; does that negate what you are?

I have been reading N. K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky during my surgery recovery, the third book in her The Broken Earth trilogy. Yesterday, I read that sentence. I keep reading for a few more paragraphs and then I thought wait, what is hurting me? and then I went back and read it again. And again.

To orient you within the story, but without really spoiling anything, at this point we are learning the origin story of Hoa, the stone eater who has become Essun’s…travel companion, sort of. Hoa and the other stone eaters were, at their beginning, bioengineered life forms created to help with a massive project that would provide endless, pollution-free energy to humanity. But the humans who created these beings don’t really understand much about who they really are. In this scene, Hoa is starting to understand that it is OK that he is not what they wanted him to be.

“I’m not what they made me; I’m something different. I am powerful in ways they did not expect. They made me but they do not control me.”

This is what I love about fiction, how a story, created by a person I’ve never met and who likely never considered a person like me in her writing, how just a few sentences within the context of the book itself, can reveal something I didn’t know about myself, but needed to know.

(I am glad I read this book now, instead of in 2017 when I bought it. I needed those words now. Then they would’ve just been part of the character arc.)


For many years, I struggled within my self-defined role. After my years of adolescent rage and rebellion, I went through a traumatic experience that, for lack of a more elegant phrase, scared me straight. I started going to church and I did everything I could to earn the “good” label within the rules of the LDS church. I went to the temple, I wore underwear I hated, I tried to ignore all of the ways that the teachings felt dissonant to me.

I wanted my mom to think I was good in these ways so she didn’t have to be ashamed of me. I wanted my neighbors to think I was good so they would be my friends. I wanted to teach my kids these good ways of being so that they could be blessed in ways that I, with all those mistakes I made in my past, would never be. I wanted to be good so that my marriage would be happy, so that my kids would be healthy and never have heartache, and so that I, too, would have a big beautiful house on the hill.

I was 18 when all of this started. So young. Still so malleable, so raw. And the church was happy to take on the making of me. It told me the things I could be: a stay-at-home mom married to a successful husband. It told me how to accomplish these things: paying tithing, going to the temple, going to church, accepting the callings, teaching my kids the gospel. Being in the world but not of it. Wearing modest clothes. Voting Republican. Not worrying about the environment because God would take care of that. Praying. Fasting. Reading the scriptures.

I tried. I tried so hard to do all the things. But despite that, I didn’t get the blessings. Not the real ones that matter to the actually “good” members of the church. My marriage is stressful. I never got that house on the hill (which is the external proof of God’s love for you, of course.) One by one, my children lost interest in the faith of their childhood, which is the ultimate proof of how not-good I was, because good mothers create children who go on missions, go to BYU, get married in the temple.

There have been several turning points in my journey away from the church. One was when a family member asked me “where is your compassion?” during a stressful time when I was literally doing everything I could to make things better. That what I could do wasn’t enough, that I still lacked compassion in this person’s eye: I turned then. I realized that my best would never be good enough, and so I would never be good enough, and maybe it was time to stop fighting that. To accept who I was, whatever goodness I might have despite my flaws, instead of always trying to be better. Always trying to achieve “good.”

The church was never my skin, but a dress I put on. A role I performed. (There are some of you who will we judge me for not being authentic. There are some of you who will judge me for not trying harder, for not making it my skin. Both ways I have castigated myself.)

Eventually I was too chafed, and I took it off. Here I am: I don’t go to church anymore. I wear regular underwear. I have turned away from “follow the prophet” and “God’s plan for you” and yes, even “the covenant path” to simply thinking for myself. To not letting someone else shape me, but to making myself as I go.

But in many ways, I am still what the church made me. Strangely enough, the times I have felt closest to God were the times when I was breaking the mold—tearing the skirt or the bodice. As, for example, when I took my teaching job, even though what I wanted to do was magically erase our financial troubles so I could continue being a stay-at-home mom. God (or the universe or whatever you want to call them) told me, in a nearly-audible voice, that I needed to do that work, and one day I would understand why. I clung to that when people criticized my working-mother status and reminded me that if I had more faith I would stay home with my children.

But I am still where the church wanted me to be, at least as far as my career goes. Middle-aged and with just enough education to hold a job, but not a job that could actually support me without my husband’s career. (Definitely not a career that might provide me with that house on the hill.) More of a hobby, really, than a career. An indulgence. Dependent, frankly, on my husband. Not independent. Not equally powerful. Not someone who matters much in the world, just a quiet, pointless person in a support position.

Men hold all the power. Women do the laundry.

I am where I am because of my choices. But undeniably those choices were influenced by the church in its striving to shape me. To make me into the person it wants all women to be.


So I guess that’s why Hoa’s realization gutted me. He, too, was made to be a cog in the wheel, to perform a function that supports other, more powerful ideals. Not to think, to create, to feel, to act, but just to do. To work. To be acted upon.

And he is more than his creators created him to be.

Does that negate who you are?

I tried to be who the church was shaping me to be, but I am something different. Their opinion of who I am becoming no longer concerns me. It doesn’t negate me.

But if I am honest, I also know this: I don’t know who I am.


There it is. That ever-present Mormon Man Voice, telling me that I don’t know who I am because I’m not following the prophet, the plan, the path. That I will only find who I am at church.

I reject that voice.

But I put my book down, I found myself crying an absolute river of tears, because…what is there for the church to negate anyway?

I gave all my years of self-formation over to an institution. A patriarchal institution.

And now, here I am. Naked, whatever underwear I might wear, but without enough time to make a self. Without the courage and self-belief from my twenties. Forty nine, which is basically 50. Tribeless, not acceptable to my family of origin, almost an empty-nester. I don’t know where to start. I do know where I want to start, but I don’t think I have enough time to do it.

When I was deep within the church, even knowing that I didn’t quite fit, I felt like I was at least part of a group. Like I had friends. But when I left, I learned I didn’t, mostly. Aside from a few very excellent friends, everyone I knew at or through church was only a church acquaintance. I wasn’t essential in their lives at all.

And now that I am outside of the church, I don’t really fit within the post-mo groups either. I’m not going to start drinking (addiction just runs too deep within my genes) and I don’t want to mock the faith I used to hold (because it feels like mocking myself, and I can’t, I just can’t add that to my list of ways to dislike myself) and I don’t want to convert a single person to my way of thinking.

(I’m not really a good post-mo either.)

There really isn’t a place that I fit.

I find myself thinking backward: who did I want to be, when I was strong and brave and rebellious and seventeen? Writer. I wanted to be a writer. If you’ve read my blog for very long you know that. I wanted to be a writer. I never really wrote. Laziness stopped me. Fear stopped me. Wanting to be “good” stopped me. I wanted an MFA, I wanted a PhD, I wanted to teach at a university while I wrote books that somehow saved some other person, as other’s work had once (and continues, as with today’s post about a novel) saved me.

And all those years I had when I could’ve been writing, instead I was trying to be good.


When I stopped crying, when I wrote some scribbles in my book about my response, I found myself thinking of a line from a poem by Adrienne Rich: there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

I landed, naked. I, to twist a common Mormon saying, left the boat. I swam on my own to shore while they floated away to whatever eternal celestial happiness they are guaranteed.

And here I am.

I am fighting this idea: there isn’t anything left for the church to negate. I lived all the best years of my life within the church, and since I left there isn’t anything that’s actually worth the act of negation. Because I gave up, for church-approved goodness, who I was.

Maybe under the dress I was wearing, I withered away. Maybe I am nothing but a femur and a ribcage and a few strands of hair.

Maybe I will figure this out. Who I am. Who I can be with the time I have left.

But today? Today, on this shore, I am feeling lost. I am feeling like nothing. I am feeling like I lived an entire wasted life.

And what I am thinking is that I didn’t know this was here, this magma under my surface. I thought I was OK with my leaving. I didn’t know, until I read those words, that I had all these tears, all of this sorrow, so much regret. I don’t want to go back to the church. I don’t want to put the dress back on.

But I am not sure if there is anything left to make of me.

Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

“It was always a cruelty to promise them equality,” he said, “since by their nature they can never achieve it. We have already begun the merciful task of lowering their expectations."

TestamentsI have answered “The Handmaid’s Tale” to the question “what’s your favorite novel?” since the late 1990s. (It’s not really a true answer; in my heart of hearts I can’t pick just one favorite, but clarifying with “my favorite feminist/dystopia mashup is The Handmaid’s Tale” gets clunky.) I first read it in the summer of 1990, after I had discovered Margaret Atwood via Cat’s Eye. It was one of the first books I bought with my own money (I still own that copy, in fact; it is a BOTM edition that also includes Surfacing and Life before Man, which I haven’t ever actually read). “Nolite tes bastardes carborundorum” has been my motto ever since. In a sense, those two Atwood books I read in 1990 shaped the outcome of my life; in a way, they saved me. They gave me literature, gave me really good writing, as a reason to stay in this world when darkness had almost overcome me.

I don’t think I could claim The Handmaid’s Tale as my favorite novel, though, until I had read more widely and understood more clearly what the book does, how clearly it illustrates the ease of a society taking away women’s rights and how deeply ingrained sexism is. And then the way the ending sets the entire story on a different track.

I’ve read it seven or eight times. I wrote an essay about it while working on my undergrad and talked about it with some of my more widely-thinking English students when I was teaching. (One student came into my room once during my prep period and said “Mrs. Sorensen! I just finished a book I think you would love!” and it was The Handmaid’s Tale and yes…that was a good teaching day.) I lead a book group discussion about it at the library. And never once did I think “I really wish I knew what happened to Offred.”

What happened to Offred is so not the point of The Handmaid’s Tale. It isn’t a novel that works because of the plot, or only because of it. It is a novel that pushes you to ask yourself difficult questions, about yourself, about the people you have relationships with, and about society.

But apparently, that is just me, and Margaret Atwood has been getting requests like “what happened to Offred?” and “how does Gilead fall?” from readers ever since.

Hence, The Testaments.

I was fairly disappointed that Atwood, one of my favorite writers, would write a sequel. But, here it is, along with a TV show (which, nope: I’ve never watched. Yes, it’s my favorite novel. No, I don’t need someone else interpreting it visually for me.) I did buy the book—I actually pre-ordered it—because it’s kind of a personal rule that I must buy every book she writes. But I didn’t even flip through it. Just stuck it on my shelf. Really: I didn’t need to know what happened to Offred (or June, as we’ve now learned her name is.)

But a few weeks ago, The Testaments was on the “available now” screen when I needed something to listen to at the start of a long walk. So I downloaded it and gave it a try. I went into it with zero expectations, without any of my usual Atwood fangirl emotion. Not even sure I would finish it.

I ended up finishing it.

I ended up liking it, even. (But not loving.) Did it change my life like The Handmaid’s Tale did? No. Do I think it is Atwood’s best novel? Absolutely not. Am I glad I read it? Yes.

I wrote before that The Handmaid’s Tale pushes you to ask difficult questions, and one of them for me is “why do women so easily turn on each other?” The regime of Gilead would not work without women’s complicity, especially the Aunts’. There is also that mean-girl structure we can so easily settle in to, with the Commander’s wives wielding whatever small powers they might have over the Marthas and especially over the handmaids. This isn’t just a thing that happens in novels, either; in my adult lifetime I have experienced several relationships with adult women who, in the end, I could only understand as Queen Bees protecting their regime. Women go to anti-abortion rallies. Women declare that we don’t need feminism. And I could write many pieces about how women hold themselves down by embracing the patriarchy within religion.

That is a question that The Testaments seeks to answer, as we get to read Aunt Lydia’s story. We come to understand how she got to be in the place of (relative) power she holds in Gilead and the machinations she undertakes to keep it. Her motivations aren’t mean-girl based. Instead, they are simply her doing what she needs to do to stay alive within a social structure that would be very happy to kill her. “What good is it,” Aunt Lydia thinks, “to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot?” Is it better, morally speaking, to be killed by refusing to conform or to say alive by shoving other women under the steamroller?

The story is told in three voices: Aunt Lydia, who is writing her experiences down in secret, as women obviously shouldn’t be writing anything, and the “witness testimonies” of two girls, Agnes and Daisy. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander, being raised in the tenants of the Gilead regime. Daisy is a young teenager living in Canada. These three stories eventually converge. Some of the questions from The Handmaid’s Tale are answered. You even get to read an ending that is similar, another conference discussing the study of Gilead.

In the end, I am glad I read The Testaments. I didn’t hate it. But it lacked that edge that Atwood’s other books have had. I wasn’t terrified within the society, as I was when I read Offred’s story. Maybe Gilead seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who doesn’t remember living a different way is less terrifying. At the same time, I was still full of anger and resentment over the usurpation of women’s rights. That narrow, self-righteous way of thinking, dressed in the guise of “preserving women’s virtue,” is not something I’ve only found in books, and it is my least-favorite way of being treated. So the book definitely made me feel something, and it does an excellent job reminding readers, all over again, that yes: we still need feminism. (Say it louder for the women in the back of the room.)

And we continue to need the kind of book that reminds of that. As Aunt Lydia says, “history does not repeat itself, it rhymes.” The Testaments is a rhyme of a book that didn’t need a repletion, really. But if she had to write it to fling more story to the clamoring masses, this one was OK. At least they got their answers.

And I am left asking myself if I can still say The Handmaid’s Tale is my favorite [feminist dystopian] novel. It is, but now I feel like I have to clarify: I felt that way before it was cool.

[This is book #5 in my 2021 summer reading challenge.]

Book Review: Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

Some sort of emotion welled within Rosa, flowing out with her tears like an unchecked mountain spring—not gladness, exactly, and not unlike a heart-stopping fear, but also something very much like hope.

I have been thinking about my mom a lot over the past week, likely because it was recently her birthday. Trying to make sense of things, of how our relationship changed over time, of what I could have done differently, of what I wish she would’ve been able to do differently. And also just snippets of good memories. I saw one of her closest friends at Costco and I learned a truth about my family that continues to gnaw at me (in a sardonic sort of way…I could only respond to this by thinking of course. Of course.) I dreamed about her once (but since her death my dreams of her have never been peaceful or good; instead, she is somehow alive and furious at me for thinking she could ever die, let alone sending her body to the morgue, and for getting rid of all of her stuff and selling her house) and I made one of the cakes she made a lot during the summers when I was a kid. My heart felt both heavy and buoyed: conflict mixed with the good memories.

(I feel guilty that even though she is gone I am still hampered by the negative thoughts. Shouldn’t I be able to just let it all go and only remember the good things, now that she isn’t here to defend herself or to explain?)

Burning rosesSo perhaps the timing of the novelette Burning Roses by S. L. Huang arriving on my hold shelf was not coincidental.

It tells the story of two characters out of legend, Little Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the Archer. Both women have grown larger than they began in their respective fairy tales, their stories more intricate and fully lived, dark, and troubled. Now they are each middle-aged, living together and using their respective strengths (gun, bow and arrow) to protect the villagers from whatever monsters come their way. When fire birds arrive, scorching an entire village, they set off on a quest to find the source of the birds so as to stop more from coming.

But this isn’t a book of fairy tales or of quests, even though it contains those. Instead, it is about each character dealing with the mistakes she’s made in her life and figuring out a way to try to atone for them. It is, in fact, a story about beginning to understand, when you are at the end of your usefulness as a mother, the wrong choices you made when you were actively mothering your kids.

(Which is not what I expected at all.)

This is a novelette, so very short (153 pages), and if I summed it up I might just ruin it. So instead I will say how it made me feel.

It is a book that brought me a sense of relief—peace, nearly—about both my relationship with my mom and my relationship with my own mothering.

Because isn’t it so deeply entwined, the way your mom mothered you, the way you mother your own children. You learn how to be a mom, in part, by the woman who mothered you. And I believe we all have things that we think “I’m going to do this differently than my mom did.” When I first had Haley, I knew I would be a fantastic mom. I would give her exactly what I had needed but not received as a child. And of course, as the years went by and I did my best, I made mistake after mistake anyway. I was an imperfect mother raised by an imperfect mother. “She’d regretted every toxic part of herself and her past with vicious self-loathing,” Rosa realizes, which is a realization I have had about myself as well. I didn’t want to be toxic, to make mistakes, to cause any damage, but I still did.

Maybe my own mom also had that regret.

“Love, even more than hate, could always sharpen anger to the keenest of points.” If I didn’t love my mom, I wouldn’t have this anger still with me. Actual love must be about the whole person, not just the good parts; it has to be about knowing—seeing—the flaws, too, but carrying on anyway, and that is complicated and messy. Anger follows. Even after they are gone, or at least for me.

When I finished the book, as I was closing it, I felt…I felt a lifting. A sense of forgiveness, or maybe just the first step towards it, for my mom. Like Rosa and Hou Yi—like myself—she made mistakes. Considering her biggest mistake, Rosa realizes it was “only a clumsy, flawed decision, like so many others along the twisting path that had brought her here.” Not every choice was wrong, not everything was bad, and nothing was truly horrible. My mom, and Rosa, and Hou Yi, loved her children but also wounded them.

I did, too.

There isn’t ever a moment in the book when this is explicitly spelled out, but what it left me thinking was this: mothers always make mistakes, but trying to hide from them or to keep them hidden is impossible. This is because mothering is difficult, and it is difficult because we love our children. And so while we can’t hide our mistakes—while we have to look at them and process them—we can keep working. We can keep trying. We can never give up on loving.

Near the end of the story, Rosa realizes that she “only had the tail end of a single lifetime, but she thought it might be just enough.” I don’t have that tail end left with my own mom, but I do with my children. I know that despite my good intentions I will continue making mistakes, but I will also keep trying.

So maybe this book also brought me a bit of self-forgiveness as well.

Book #4 of my Summer Reading Challenge.

Book Review: The Great Godden

I think that when he said those words he meant them, though perhaps not in the deeper sense of actually meaning them. I racked my brain to figure it out. Was this just what relationships were like these days? Whatever you felt like with whoever was there? I didn't want to look as if I didn't understand the rules.

Great goddenMeg Rosoff's first novel, How I Live Now, is one of my top-ten favorite young adult books. Her writing is edgy and surprising and a bit risky in the YA market (hence it was perfect when it won the Printz). Plus many of her books are set in England, which I appreciate, so I watch when she has a new book released.

I was excited to read her newest, The Great Godden, which tells the story of the—well, we're never given the family's surname, but —a family's annual summer trip to their beach house on the British coast. Their adult cousin, who also has a beach house, surprises them when they arrive: she's getting married, and this summer she is hosting Kit and Hugo Godden, the sons of one of her friends, who is a famous actress. The narrator—also unnamed, unless I just somehow missed it—tells the story of the impact of Kit (the golden, sexy, confident brother) and Hugo (the dark and moody one) on her family.

This is a coming-of-age novel, I suppose. A lyrical summer read. I enjoyed the characterization and the atmosphere.

But, I must confess: it was just kind of meh for me. OK, but not memorable like several of her other books. The big twist just felt ridiculous to me, and never knowing the narrator's name just made me think why? I did think she nailed the confusion of adolescent first love (as in the quote above) but there just didn't seem to be any sparkle here.

It was OK. And I can check it off my summer reading list. But not, alas, amazing like some of her other works.

Book #3 of my Summer Reading Challenge.

Book Review: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawaii Strong Washburn

If a God is a thing that has absolute power over us, then in this world there are many. There are gods that we choose and gods that we can’t avoid; there are gods that we pray to and gods that prey on us; there are dreams that become gods and pasts that become gods and nightmares that do, as well. As I age I learn that there are more gods than I’ll ever know, and yet I have to watch for all of them, or else they can use me or I can lose them without even realizing it.

I’ve been to Hawaii twice. The first time I went was in 1997, when Kendell and I went to Oahu with some friends. We did all the tourist things, the Arizona Memorial (my favorite day), snorkeled in Hanauma Bay, explored Waikiki, went to Turtle Beach (although we didn’t see any turtles), spent a day at the PCC, suffered from sunburns, hiked the short trail to Diamond Head, ate brunch on the beach. I enjoyed that trip, but Hawaii didn’t get into my blood until 2017, when we took our whole family to the Big Island.

Something about that trip made me fall in love with Hawaii. Maybe it was that I went out running almost every morning. The hike out to Papakōlea or the afternoon I spent wandering Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau (which connected me to my childhood self reading about Queen Liliuokalani) or the morning we went snorkeling together and I looked out through the blue water and could see my whole family in ocean dotted with dolphins. It wasn’t really about the beach, as I don’t love the beach and actually had two of my life’s most terrifying beach experiences on that trip. More, it was about a connection, completely unearned due to my status as a haole, to the island itself. I remember standing on a rocky beach during one of my morning runs, watching the waves and smelling that Hawaii smell and feeling how the island ran deep into the ocean floor and stood by itself in the water, an entity that didn’t form me but that somehow, in that moment, acknowledged my existence. A land of different gods than any other place I’ve touched, gods whose stories happened without people like me but are deep and strong as the root of the island.

Sharks in the time of saviorsI thought of that feeling a lot as I read Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn. It tells the story of the Flores family, Malia and Augie and their children Dean, Nainoa, and Kaui. Nainoa, who was conceived in the Waipio Valley on a night when the old gods seemed to walk, is a sort of a miracle: as a child, he fell off a boat off the coast of Kona, but the sharks that swam in didn’t eat him, but saved him. Supernatural events start happening, continue happening as the family grows and tries to survive as the sugar industry collapses. The story is told through each of the family members’ perspectives. And, honestly: that is all I want to tell about the book. Partly because it is a hard one to describe, mostly because it is one you just need to read in order to experience: magic realism set in Hawaii, gorgeously and movingly written.              

I loved this book. I did set it down for a good two weeks, when I got entirely too frustrated with Dean and his choices. But it wasn’t a book that would let me let go, so I picked it back up and finished it in two fast gulps of reading. I loved it because I had been to some of the places in the book, and because of the writing. Because half the time I had to set it aside for a few minutes because it made me cry so often—it is a raw and painful story, but it hit some of my sore spots in restorative ways. I don’t think it is a book that everyone will love; it’s not particularly approachable and as far as plot goes not a lot happens, and the ending isn’t really tidy.

But I am so glad I read it, because it made me feel a part of Hawaii again, like I did on that trip. Not in a cultural-appropriation way. But just connected to the islands as they are part of the world and I am part of the world, and the gods only barely glanced at me but I kept them with me somehow. Or maybe they kept a part of me with them, in the flowers and the waves and the stone and the volcano.

Some fragments I loved:

Whole nights after the sharks, your father and I had been wondering what would happen,  what you would be. I believe that graveyard day was the first time we truly understood the scale of you. . . My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl, and soon enough you’d have to gently set down my love, fold it up into the soil of your childhood, and move beyond. (Malia)

You can talk about a thing over and over.  Or see movies or listen to songs that you think say something about it, right? But still it’s nothing compared to the whirling jump of blood in your chest when you find, at last and at least for a moment, someone that wants you as much as you want them. (Kaui)

How many nights did we make like that? How long was I stupid enough to believe we were indestructible? But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight. (Noa)

               It’s an impossible thing to explain, motherhood. What is lost, the blood and muscle and bone that are drawn from your body to feed and breathe a new life into the world. The bulldozer of exhaustion that hits in the first trimester, the nauseous clamps of the mornings, the warping and swelling and splitting open of everything previously taut or delicate, until your body is no longer yours but something you must survive. But those are only the physical. It’s what comes after that takes more.
               Whatever part of me flowed into you from my body, it turned us tight into two people that shared a soul. I believe that of all my children. Fathers will never understand the way you get deep in us, so deep that there’s a part of me that remains, always, a part of you, no matter where you go…You’d wake in the crook of my arms with the whites of your eyes alive with brightness and wonder, drinking in every hew thing as your impossibly smooth skin pawed at my cheek. Windowsills we rocked by. The fuzz of your first hairs under my nose as I nuzzled you in your sleep. . . The whole world was there, in your face, beaming out of your perfect brown skin. Everything was made new, over and over. It shook me with something so holy and complete I didn’t need a prayer to know there were gods with us, in us. (Malia)

Book #1 of my Summer Reading Challenge

Book Review: Burn by Patrick Ness

“I'm just a girl."

"It is tragic how well you have been taught to say that with sadness rather than triumph.”

About a week ago I was casting around for an audio book to listen to during a long walk I wanted to take. Burn by Patrick Ness was available on Overdrive, and since I’ve enjoyed many of his other books I decided to give this one a try. I’m glad I did! Ness's books are always beautifully written. They break your heart a bit, and make you feel things intensely, and look at the world in slightly different ways. This one was no exception. 

BurnBurn is a young adult novel set in Washington state during the 1950s. There are several people who tell the story, but the main character (for me) is Sarah Dewhurst, who lives with her father on his farm outside of a small town. Since she is of mixed heritage, she doesn’t have many friends—none, actually, except for her neighbor Jason, who is similarly outcast. Being poor, Sarah’s father has to hire a dragon to clear a new field for him, and this is when Sarah’s world starts to change. There is also Malcom, a boy from a cult called The Believers, which wants to clear the world of people for the dragons, and an FBI investigator, Agent Woolf, who is trying to track down Malcolm with her partner, as she’s figured out he’s going to kill someone. And Kazimir, the dragon himself, who, as a Russian Blue, evokes even more suspicion than the usual red dragons do, what with the Cold War and Russia planning on launching a satellite soon.

I enjoyed much of this story. I had no idea where it would go, as what seemed to be the likely climax happened only halfway through the book. But I loved where it went. The story offers much to think about regarding concepts like race, prejudice, religiosity, and choice.

My complaint is that it really felt too short. I think it needed about 20% more story, especially at the end. It also has quite a bit of violence, which seemed gratuitous for a young adult novel.

But it was a fun companion on several runs and walks.

Book #2 of my Summer Reading Challenge.

Book Review (of a sort): The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

It is surprising how refreshing this feels. Being judged by what you do, and not what you are.

Fifth seasonBack in 2017, I took the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy (The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate) with me when we went to Hawaii. It was a perfect vacation read for me, engaging and substantial and enthralling. Totally unlike the other series I’d read by her, The Inheritance trilogy, but alike in the quality of writing and the way the writer is aware that even in speculative fiction there are all types of people. (This isn’t white, European-fable-based fantasy, in other words.) The setting—an earth-like planet, called The Stillness, that has undergone global transformation so that sometimes there are “seasons,” a span of years where the environment becomes inhospitable to human life in different ways—was completely unlike Hawaii (one of my requirements for a vacation read is that it is not set in the same or similar place as where I am going), but also a little bit connected via volcanoes and basalt.

The series tells the story of Essun, who is an orogene. Orogenes are people on this earth who can control various geological processes. They are highly despised and so, when a child is discovered to be one, they are either killed by their comm (the communities people live within) or, if they are lucky (or unfortunate, depending on perspective) they are taken to be trained at The Fulcrum, where they learn to control their powers. As the series starts, a massive earthquake has caused a continent-wide rift volcano to form, setting off a season that might be too long for humanity to survive. On the same day, Essun (who has hidden the fact of her orogeny from her family and community) discovers that her husband has murdered their son and abducted her daughter, Nassun, presumably because he discovered their powers of orogeny.

Obelisk gateTo me, this is the best kind of science fiction. It is based in science—geology, which is my favorite scientific branch anyway—but the way the story progresses makes you think about humanity and our society. It explores the mother/daughter relationship, gender, women's roles, race, racism, prejudice, community, education, friendship, all while telling a damn fine story. Am I gushing? Well, let me ooze a little more:

This is a series I am in awe of. What I mean by that is this:

When I read some books I find myself thinking this is the kind of book I might be able to write. Those books resonate because the author and I have some sort of the same way of thinking. Sometimes this even frustrates me: why can that person write this book but I can’t, or I haven’t yet?

Other books create the opposite reaction. They resonate because they are nothing that I would ever be able to even imagine, let alone put into words. They come from ways of thinking that are entirely different than mine, and I love that we can live in a world so full of so much brilliance and diversity of imagination.

The Broken Earth trilogy causes the second kind of reaction in me. I think so many things in it are brilliant and my writerly self just soaks it all in with awe. I couldn’t ever do what she does and I am just grateful I found her work so I can be exposed to such ways of thinking.

At any rate: I read the first two books in the trilogy in Hawaii. (I finished the second book on our drive home.) I had every intention of reading the third book, The Stone Sky, right when it came out, which was only a couple of months after our trip. I even bought it on pre-order so I could start it as soon as it was released.

But…I didn’t read it! I think it was because it was so closely connected to Hawaii for me, and I wanted to have that same feeling. Or maybe I was afraid that I loved the first two books so much, the last one might not measure up. The ending might disappoint me. I don’t know.

This spring, Kendell and I tried to plan a trip to Hawaii. I thought perfect! I’ll crack open The Stone Sky as soon as we get there! But since it’s been four years since I read the other two, I decided to listen to the audio books, so as to refresh my memory.

So throughout April and May, these books were part of my thoughts again. I listened while I exercised, quilted, cooked, and worked in the garden. Rereading them made me love them even more. I had forgotten quite a few details, and there were others that I somehow completely missed during my first read.

And now I am ready to read my print copy of The Stone Sky. We aren’t going to Hawaii—it was impossible to get a rental car, and everything was so expensive, we will save it for next year. But next week I am having another surgery, and that is the book I’m going to read first while I’m lying around recuperating (again). I can’t wait to see how the trilogy ends.