Read more books

I don’t know how I first learned to read. My parents won’t take credit. My kindergarten teacher can’t claim she helped, because I was reading before I ever walked through the classroom door. I have no memory of how it started, so I hardly have the right to an opinion, but it’s a story I know well.

Sitting in the backseat at age two, I looked out the window at a sign and said, “Car!” My mom laughed, thinking I was mimicking her. “Wash!” I said. She stopped laughing.

When we stopped at a red light, she looked back at me. “Brittany, what does that sign say?” she asked, pointing. “Sale,” I said. 

She took me to her parents’ house that evening. “Mom, I think Brittany can read,” she said. My grandma took out a small chalkboard and wrote simple words. I read what she wrote: BOY. CAT. DOG. MOM. No one could understand it, but there I was, a reader.

– – –

Often during the holidays, my family sits down to watch a favorite video on VHS of me reading to my sister Erika. On film, I am four years old and she’s two. We’re wearing matching nightgowns and sitting by each other on the couch, although she keeps twisting around to ham it up for the camera. The Christmas tree twinkles behind us. 

My lispy voice squeaks as I read a Little Critter book, my delivery like a freight train. Nothing can stop me, not even Erika’s protests: “I wanna sing Jinga Bells!”

“‘Twas da night befoah Chwistmus and allll fwoo da house,” I lilt, charmed by the story. I am a reading machine.

My mom tells me how I used to plow though books sitting in the exam room at the pediatrician’s office. I’d happily oblige her, reading a Berenstain Bears book aloud, but once Dr. M walked in the door, I clammed up. “Brittany, please read a page for Dr. M,” my mom would ask, but I would stay silent, acting like I wasn’t in the room. I read for the books, not for other people.

– – –

In grade school, I had moved on from Bookmobile to school library, gladly devouring random selections from the shelves. I scared myself reading Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians in seventh grade and relished it from cover to cover. Later that year, I joined my friend Justine’s family for a road trip to Boise, where I learned to ski, but what I remember just as vividly is when we finally arrived at her brother’s house and I refused to socialize or go to sleep until I had finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

I’ve rarely let my social life keep me from reading, for better or worse. I was the girl on the hallway couch in high school who was reading during a free period. Maybe early on it was mostly the latest offering from Nora Roberts or Danielle Steel, but even the glittering, impossibly perfect lives in those novels taught me to think about what I truly want in life. Later, it was Literature, and I would have been happy to tell you why that was important if you asked. I thought I was a charming little scholar.

– – –

Books are a delicious escape from the world and a new horizon unfolding. They bring comfort and reality. They nurture and challenge. Even now, when I tell myself I’d rather be watching the latest episode of SNL or lying on the couch as I binge on an entire season of Orange Is The New Black, when I choose a book instead, I never regret it. Books help me understand other people and myself. They let me feel things. They help me seize possibility and growth.

Whether it’s a used paperback or a brand-new first edition, something I’m reading for the third time, or a book on the Kindle, I’m with Borges, who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

– – –

A sampling of favorite books, in rough chronological order

1 Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss 

2 Corduroy by Don Freeman

3 Richard Scarry’s To Market, To Market 

4 Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

5 Snuggle Piggy and the Magic Blanket by Michelle Stepto

6 Little House on the Prairie (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder

7 Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

8 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

9 The Giver by Lois Lowry

10 The BFG by Roald Dahl

11 The Saddle Club (series) by Bonnie Bryant

12 Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples 

13 The Babysitters Club (series) by Ann M. Martin

14 Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

15 The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

16 Joyride by Gretchen Olson

17 The Gift by Danielle Steel

18 Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

19 The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

20 East of Eden by John Steinbeck

21 Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

22 Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

23 All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

24 Spartina by John Casey

25 Mink River by Brian Doyle

26 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

27 The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

28 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

29 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

30 Light Years by James Salter

31 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

32 The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

33 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

34 Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

35 Yes Please by Amy Poehler

36 The Dream of A Common Language by Adrienne Rich

37 Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

38 An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

39 Lit by Mary Karr

40 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


Go to bed on time

subtitle: A Primer on Sleep

SUBJECT: Self, age 28. Dear girlfriends from college are welcome on occasion. Younger sisters are begrudgingly accepted. All others by invitation only.

WHAT: Sleep.

Note: This may not come immediately. On some nights, sleep is postponed indeterminately due to late weeknight concerts or successful dates. On less desired occasions, sleep may be worsened, lessened, or found altogether impossible for extended periods due to episodes of anxiety, including unnecessary concern for one’s cardiac health or repeat compulsive urges to use the restroom.

WHEN: Around 10:00 p.m. on weeknights, maybe 11:00 or so on weekends, depending upon activity. Screens off at 9:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, with iPhone to charge in the kitchen and laptop stored in any location that is not the bedroom. Lights out by 10:30, strictly by 11:00.

WHERE: A small bedroom with periwinkle walls and a paper lantern covering a bare bulb in the ceiling. The bedroom’s inhabitant had intentions to replace the lantern, but she has lived in the bedroom for 15 months now and change is unlikely at this point. A queen-sized bed with creaky box springs and firm but slightly bowing mattress, particularly on the right side where said inhabitant sleeps. One set of white sheets has a blue ink stain from a pen used for journaling. Small tear in floral duvet cover toward lower end. Blackout shades over windows. Tower fan standing across the room for overly warm nights. Teetering stack of books and reading material on and near nightstand including various issues of The Sun magazine, Tin House, Poets and Writers, and The Atlantic Monthly, the ultimate of which room’s inhabitant will likely never read, but receives because she exchanged unused and expiring Hawaiian Airlines miles for a subscription. 

Books include Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Sinners Welcome, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, Rookie Yearbook One, My Struggle (Volume Two) by Karl Ove Knausgaard, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

Wear lightweight and loose pajamas, Rick Steves travel eye mask, hair in “pineapple” shape (essentially a ponytail loosely gathered atop one’s head) to maintain optimum curl pattern overnight. Ear plugs are optional and almost guaranteed to fall out during sleep, but can help muffle television sounds or conversation. Fitbit can be worn within wristband on non-dominant arm to track sleep length and quality.

HOW: Begin by following preparatory steps above, as well as removing contact lenses, brushing and flossing teeth, and washing face. Once in bed, it is acceptable to spend 30-60 minutes writing in journal or logbook and reading from any matter of sources. It might be found enjoyable and calming to read a few poems aloud.

Once light has been turned out and sleep mask secured, the most comfortable position is lying on stomach with one knee bent out at an angle and arms circling head underneath pillow. Other positions may be more conducive to preventing fine lines and blemishes, but this position is decidedly most comfortable.

WHY: Sleep is a necessary and renewing activity for brain and body. By sleeping six to eight hours per night, one may maintain healthy weight, lower overall stress, have higher focus and energy levels, and not view every other human on the earth as an asshole.



word of the week: inimitable



definition: impossible to copy or imitate, not capable of being imitated

example: Sitting on stage, dressed in black from shirt to socks and wearing a pair of silver Birkenstocks, the inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin spoke carefully to her rapt literary audience. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my Macbook, but I keep it in service of an ancient craft: storytelling.”


Experience the joy of letting others help you

  Madrid, 2008
Madrid, 2008

It is a cool night and you are standing in something that might be called a line outside the can and bottle return station at your local Fred Meyer, picking up your feet and realizing they’re sticking to the pavement with its dried film of beer scum and soda residue. You’re beginning to wonder if it was a smart idea to spend your Saturday night doing this, or if you’re even going to be able to return your three and a quarter bags of seltzer cans tonight. 

You often have impulsive ideas but sometimes they are too impulsive and you have to follow through anyway so you don’t feel like a fool but would anyone really notice if you just put the bags back into your trunk and went grocery shopping and then home instead? The only other people feeding cans into the machines are the people who are always here feeding cans into the machines, men who probably don’t have a home to go to, men who are pushing shopping carts filled not just with cans and bottles but with everything they own, men wearing their only clothes.

It is okay for you to be here, you tell yourself, wishing you weren’t, wishing you had the courage to maybe just give away your bagged cans and bottles. Two men approach the shelter and one of them tosses something into the trash and then hands the nearest, most obviously homeless man a $10 or $20 bill and says, hey man, I told myself I was going to be nice tonight, take care. The man takes the bill, but seems unable to know what to do next, looking at the bill and then at the man and then at the return machine. He growls something unintelligible and then returns to his task.

You feel a little nervous, not sure if you’re safe but also aware that you’re not that generous, either, and you know deep down that we are all connected but sometimes it’s easier to click “Donate” on a website than it is to hand a paper bill to another human and you know all of the questions when it comes to reducing homelessness and poverty but you haven’t taken the time to think about the answers. 

It’s your turn at the machine now, the kind where you have to feed each can or bottle individually, and the machine only wants to accept every fifth or sixth can, but someone approaches you, saying, let me help, you have to wipe the bar code sometimes. 

You’re not sure if you ought to let him help you but he has kind eyes and you’re really committed now and can feel frustration mounting and so you smile helplessly and he pulls a paper towel out of his back pocket, shows you how to clean the can, runs his finger around the inside of your plastic water bottles to remove the dents, points to the camera inside the machine and explains how it’s best if you put cans in tab first. He knows the system, he tells you, he knows that certain bottles were produced in California and so can only be returned in California but if you tell an employee, they’ll write you a slip for reimbursement.

He asks you to watch his bike and bag of cans while he runs in to the customer service counter to ask an employee to fix the machine’s printer, or if you’d rather he can watch your bags while you go inside. You let him go in while you send protective thoughts out over his belongings, reflecting in wonder at the quiet connection you’re making under the cloudy night sky.

He comes back and not long after, an employee named Cookie comes out to shake the bins of crushed cans, reset the printer, count bottles for another customer. Your friend puts your can into the repaired machine and it’s accepted, and at the same time he offers you the other machine that works now, the one that will eat up cans by the armful, and so you take the second one, and he begins to use the machine next to you. He offers you a nickel for the can that he tested, but you smile and brush it off. 

You’re accumulating a small collection of unaccepted bottles and cans in the bottom of your cart and you’re wondering how to give them to your new friend, if you should give him your slips or cash instead of pocketing it, but there has to be a right way to do this and you just don’t know what it is. You’ve returned all you can now, so you ask your friend if he’d like the extras, but he just smiles, not meeting your eyes, and shows you where to put the glass bottles that can’t be recycled for a deposit. He gently gathers your damaged cans and plastic bags into the trash and then stands with you for a few moments longer, only occasionally making eye contact, telling you how he came to be here, about his past as a contractor and the times he helped family members move to the Northwest.

You ask for his name, and he says, it’s a Spanish name, Arturo, but I’m also called Arthur. Good night, Arturo, you say, thanks for your help. It was really nice to meet you.  



word of the week: beaucoup



definition: [slang] great in quantity or amount : many, much

example: James looked up from counting his tips as Alex rounded the corner to clock out. James gave Alex a friendly punch on the shoulder, grinning. “We made beaucoup bucks tonight, dude! Let’s go to Shorty’s! Drinks on me!”



word of the week: eldritch



defintion: weird and sinister or ghostly

example: An eldritch moaning filled the theater, and Joanna knew even before an image appeared on the screen that she didn’t want to watch this movie trailer. She willed herself to keep her eyes on the dark, sticky floor. Joanna hated Halloween season.


Go for a walk

I am a creature of habit, a woman of ritual. After lunch, I go for a 30-minute walk in the business park where I work. There are no sidewalks for long stretches, so I crunch through the red cinder rock or walk the white line if the road is open.

The weather is changing, and while I don’t idealize the seasons, or at least I try not to, this one is my favorite. I love fall. On a lunchtime walk earlier this month, I realized there’s something about the low angle of the late afternoon sun and the crispness in the air that makes me feel like I can exhale for the first time in months.

My love for fall isn’t about scarves or boots. I’m not that excited to put squash on my stoop. I refuse to drink pumpkin spice lattes. I embrace this season because it gives me what I need. The heat eases and the sky deepens. In the past weeks, I have felt like falling to my knees with relief more than once. Maybe there’s some nostalgia in this, a twinge of rose-filtered longing for new pens and bright maple trees and sitting in classrooms. But there’s also something happening physiologically. The temperature is dropping, sliding back into the 70s and 60s, and I am achy and teary with gratitude.

In the summer, I often come in from a midday walk with my mind refreshed, but my body sluggish. I am overheated and feel soft and round and thick. I gulp water. The feeling eases, but it makes me want to lie on the cool cement floor of my basement. I am not energized.

This week, I have been coming in openhearted and loose and light. Goals feel closer. I can do more, give more, be more. I want to hug my friends and sisters. I want to hand out flowers to strangers.

I feel the cool breeze on my face and watch the sun sliding down the sky. This is coming home.

– – – 

After reading Teju Cole’s Open City a couple of years ago, I became enamored of the idea of taking long solo walks through the city. The city I live in is no New York, but it’s walkable and my neighborhood is friendly. Being habitual, I tend to stick to my neighborhood loop. On Sundays, I often hike up Mt. Tabor, a nearby volcanic cinder cone. Mt. Tabor Park is green and quiet and filled with trails.

Some days, I’ll put my earbuds in and listen to an episode of WTF with Marc Maron or Beck’s Morning Phase. On others, I am quiet, letting my mind spool out and dip into new thoughts. It’s best if I don’t have a destination. When I walk as a mode of transportation, I feel bogged down by time constraints. It takes too long to get places and I’m impatient. When I walk as a means of meditation, everything falls away and I can be brought back to myself, to the earth, to acceptance.


Drink water

Before sitting down to write this, I opened the fridge and scanned my offerings. Kombucha. Cans of seltzer water. Almond milk. I had boxes of tea bags and fresh coffee in the pantry. An insistent part of my brain wanted any of those options, just a little something that would feel like a treat. A hit of sweet. A tart zing. 

But I filled a glass with water instead, dropped in a few ice cubes, and sat down at this desk. Water is the only vital thing. Writing often feels that way to me, too.

– – –

I went to Cape Cod last week for a conference. My coworkers and I stayed at the Chatham Bars Inn on the elbow of the cape, which looked like it had fallen out of the pages of The Great Gatsby. The curving, light-filled inn and its surrounding cottages and outbuildings faced the Atlantic Ocean, just across the street. The grounds lay quiet and manicured, the cottages quaint with shake shingle siding and white trim, but it was the ocean that stunned me.

The beach was in a harbor, ringed by sandbars and outcroppings. The water was calm, lapping at the shore. No cresting waves. No roar.

On the first afternoon of our stay, I joined my coworkers on the beach. We waded into the water, feeling refreshed after working outside and sitting in the sun. I could see my feet underwater. I watched minnows dart around and seaweed drift in the tide. I agreed to swim again the next morning.

We met on the beach at 6:00 the next day, jogging barefooted up and down the short stretch of land to get warm. Light was just rising from the horizon, and the air felt thick on my skin.

Bob dove in first and came up gasping. I knew I had to go in all at once or I wasn’t going to do it. I counted to three, clenching up, and then dove. It took my mind and body a few seconds to connect properly. The water was bracing. It made me feel alive. I could taste the salt in my mouth.

We sat, submerged in two feet of water, and watched the sunrise. I told myself, You are in the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise. Pay attention. The sky glowed with a palette of rich, warm colors. I felt myself on the earth, in the ocean, in the moment. Connected. Grateful.

– – –

Water draws together villages and towns and people. We swim and wash our dishes and bathe each other and drink water. Water separates us. Salty oceans sit unforgiving and mighty between the continents. Water carries us to new places. Water is a blessing and a scarce resource. 

I drink from my glass and I think about how more of us struggle to have enough clean water. I think about where my water comes from. I try to say no to Aquafina and Dasani and other corporate-fueled bottles of “purified” drinking water. I tell myself I could carry bottled water in my car on hot summer days for homeless men and women in my city. 

When I think about water, I see all of us connected. I have questions about our future. I hope desperately for answers. Water is the only vital thing.