I REALLY had to put on my big-girl pants for this week’s #plotdrivenlife experience, but first, let me share a book that had me thinking about its message long after I finished it: Dhonielle Clayton’s, The Belles:
In the fantastical land of Orleans, Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, one of a select few girls born with the ability to beautify the population. Without the intervention of a Belle, every person–even royalty–reverts to a natural “cursed” state of pale skin, grey hair and colorless eyes: the definition of ugly. Only the wealthy can afford regular Belle treatments– painful procedures that must be repeated on a regular basis to maintain one’s beauty. Strong-willed Camellia is determined to outshine her Belle sisters to be hand-selected by the queen to serve as the official royal Belle, known as “the favorite.” When she’s named the runner-up, Camellia is devastated, believing she failed her mother who, herself, served as the favorite. When Amber, her Belle sister, mysteriously vanishes from the palace and Camellia is put in her place, Camellia doesn’t know what to think. Should she be happy she realized her dream? Or fear for Amber’s safety? Camellia soon realizes one of the royals is unstable and will destroy anyone–Belle or not– who gets in the way of her plans to be queen. When the ailing queen approaches Camellia with a plea to use her Belle powers in an unconventional way, Camellia must decide if it’s worth risking her own life.
This book made me weigh the value of beauty in our society and got me thinking about what lengths we are, as a society, willing to go to look beautiful. Will future governments put restrictions on what procedures we can and can’t undergo to look a certain way? Or will advancements in genetics allow us to choose the way our children look? This is a great book to start discussion about the the concept of beauty and the pressure to look beautiful. The author also includes an interesting note at the end of the book about what sparked her idea for this story.
As I mentioned earlier, the Belles kept me thinking about our obsession with beauty long after I finished the book. My original idea for a #plotdrivenlife experience inspired by this book was to do something fun and inconsequential: put notes in helium balloons and release them, inspired by the “post balloons” that the people of Orleans can magically send to one another. As I thought more about our societal obsession with beauty, though, I decided on a more meaningful and much more scary #plotdrivenlife experience to honor The Belles: I went a whole week without wearing a stitch of make-up.
Now let me put this into perspective for you because if you are a young person reading this post, you probably know that the current beauty trend is to look natural. Messy hair, bare faces and comfy clothes are “in” right now, and I think that’s absolutely fantastic. In fact, I’ve been an admirer of Alicia Keys and her decision to wear no/limited make-up since 2016 (read her powerful message about going “raw” here). I know in my heart that no person should feel like he/she has to wear a mask every day to look beautiful or fit in. So if you’ve embraced this natural trend, or if you’ve never cared to wear make-up, you’re probably thinking I’m a big baby for being scared by the idea of going without make-up for a week.
Here’s the thing, though: I grew up in a family of women who don’t let anyone see them until they have their “faces on.” I don’t think I EVER saw my Nanny without make-up and perfectly coiffed hair, and my mom will still sometimes apologize to me if I FaceTime her early in the morning and she has yet to do her make-up and hair. The women in our family typically rise early to go through their morning beauty routines before anyone else can see them. They don’t go to their mailboxes (attached to their houses, no less) without fully made up faces. They don’t go to the grocery store, the doctor’s office or out for coffee without their make-up masks. So, for me, this has always been normal and pre-programmed behavior. As a result, it was especially brave of me to consider going to school every day to teach the wrinkle-free, fresh-faced youth of America who had never seen me without concealer, powder, blush, eye-shadow, eye-liner, pencil-lined brows, mascara, and bronzer applied to my face. Add to this fact that my face is rounder because I’m seven months pregnant, and, well, I dreaded the idea of going a whole week unfiltered. However, my goal in tackling this experience was to attempt to be comfortable in my own skin and challenge the idea that I need to wear a make-up mask every day to hide my real self.
To highlight how uneasy this whole experience made me, I’m sharing with you a graphic that made me so uncomfortable to create that I walked away from it a couple of times. Here’s me, during my no make-up week, with some of my own commentary on what I don’t like about my face. And readers, it’s scary to me how quickly and easily I came up with all of these criticisms:
Day one without make-up was rough. Walking in to school in the morning, I thought about making a run for the door and calling in sick. Seriously. I wore my glasses instead of my contacts in the hopes they would hide my deep under-eye circles and my tiny, unlined eyes. I expected my fellow staff and my students to point and laugh at me, or ask why I looked so tired. I expected them to look longer at my face because they could clearly now see right through me and realize how flawed I actually am. But, you know what happened? No one said a thing. I taught a bunch of classes, had face-to-face conversations with staff and even visited another school to talk to students about my blog, and no one questioned my value, my professionalism, or my appearance. No one. And by day seven, while in a public place, Mike told me I had a wild blonde whisker growing out of my face, and I shrugged and said I’d get it later. That, my friends, is progress!
So while I’ll go back to wearing make-up to work next week because I feel more professional wearing it, I won’t be so hesitant to go bare-faced on weekends, and I am beginning to accept that my worth isn’t tied to my appearance. Here’s a powerful ad from Dove that ran a few years ago that supports that idea that we view ourselves so much more critically than others. This would be an awesome experiment to try with students to help them see how beautiful they really are.
I have never been particularly interested in birds because I prefer the type of animals that you can cuddle and walk, but this week’s book had me plan a #PlotDrivenLife experience to learn more about birds native to the St. Louis area. It just so happens that the Mississippi River in the dead of winter provides the perfect conditions to spot bald eagles fishing– that is if the extremely cold temperatures and wind conditions don’t keep them grounded. More on that in a minute, but first, check out the book that inspired this week’s experience: Flight Season by Marie Marquardt:
Vivi is in free-fall after a disastrous freshman year at Yale. Instead of road-tripping around the country with her roommate all summer, Vivi relocates to St. Augustine, FL with her mother, both of them still deeply grieving Vivi’s father’s recent death. Though she finds comfort in bird-watching and reliving the world-wide adventures she shared with her dad, Vivi is panicked that she’s dangerously close to destroying her dreams of medical school. If she wants a second chance at Yale, she’ll have to dedicate herself to the hospital internship she miraculously finagled. As a result of her father’s illness, Vivi feels called to medicine, and the fact that she gets woozy at the sight of blood is just a temporary inconvenience, right?
Broody TJ wants to make a life for himself beyond the confines of his family’s restaurant, Sabor do Brasil. He splits his days as a nurse-in-training at the hospital and his nights and weekends as a server. He never thought he’d run into the attractive, rich girl, so named Vivi, who got so drunk she took off her top and completely embarrassed herself while he was working at the restaurant over Thanksgiving break. At the time, TJ was disgusted with her and her uppity friends; now that’s she’s assigned to work on the cardiac ward with him, he can’t even look her in the eyes.
While caring for a young patient named Angel, Vivi and TJ are forced to face their misconceptions about each other, and they learn that life rarely goes according to plan.
Author Marie Marquardt writes about Vivi’s grief so realistically that I could feel it, and I easily connected to the characters. I liked the use of alternating viewpoints between Vivi and TJ, but I have to admit that I found Angel’s narration a bit weird. Overall, this is a sweet love story with a conclusion that will tug at your heartstrings.
To start each of the chapters that Vivi narrates, Marquardt includes a sketch Vivi has drawn of a bird she’s spotted and facts about the bird she’s learned from a bird reference book. Vivi feels a connection to her father through the birds she sees, and the reader sees her obsessive bird-watching and recording as a symptom of her grief. It’s both beautiful and heart-wrenching.
I hadn’t ever before been bird-watching outside of an eagle-watching excursion while I was on an Alaskan cruise, but after reading this book, I was particularly interested in participating in a local Eagle Days event to learn more about the prevalence of these birds near where I live. I did not know before researching this event that, according to the Eagle Days website, “The Mississippi River holds one of North America’s largest concentrations of bald eagles.” So, with blowing winds and temperatures in the 20 degree Fahrenheit range, Mike and I suited up in our winter gear, and prepared to walk across the Mississippi River on the Chain of Rocks Bridge in January to get a good look at some majestic eagles. As we took the long walk towards the center of the bridge where volunteers had set up telescopes for visitors, I found myself doing that cold-weather coping thing where you just scream for no reason, maybe just to prove to yourself you’re still alive?
When we arrived at the telescopes, the only thing to see was empty eagle nests tucked into the side of a nearby bridge or the branches of a barren tree. The eagles, according to the volunteers, were safely tucked away in a copse of trees downstream. Maybe they were watching us, laughing at our ridiculous outfits and decision to walk out over the Mississippi in conditions that literally took your breath away!
So, we didn’t see any eagles in their natural habitat, but the highlight of the day was a special eagle education program we attended onsite sponsored by the World Bird Sanctuary. Josh, an employee at the sanctuary, brought with him an injured eagle named Sanibel, and we sat just a few feet away from her while he taught us about the mission of the sanctuary, how Sanibel (aptly named because she once lived in Florida) came to be one of its residents and the basics of bald eagles.
It. Was. So. Cool. Sanibel was very chill, and so was Josh, considering that their faces were only a few inches from one another. There was no audience bird-petting allowed, of course, but this experience certainly made me more appreciative of the majestic beauty of the national bird. I mean, these birds know how to build a nest!
If you missed out on one of the many eagle-watching events in January, consider a visit to the World Bird Sanctuary any time of year to learn more about ALL of the different kinds of eagles. I had no idea!
As you can probably imagine, I’ve been a whole lot more sentimental about family since we reconnected with my dad’s maternal family in 2018. I’ve mentioned many times that we experienced a miracle, and it’s made me treasure the family I’ve always known even more. I recently reflected on some of my favorite childhood memories, and this is the book that got me reflecting: Lara Avery’s, The Memory Book:
Sammie McCoy has some serious over-achiever type goals. After she wins the National Debate Tournament and graduates as valedictorian, she’ll attend NYU and subsequently make a name for herself as a human rights attorney. So, she has absolutely no time for Niemann-Pick Type C, an aggressive disease that will steal her memory and eventually render her brain-dead. Sadly, this is Sammie’s new reality, even if she’s unwilling to accept it.
Determined not to succumb to her disease, Sammie logs important details, memories, predictions and dreams on her computer in what becomes her “Memory Book.” Sammie writes candidly about her senior year when she catches the eye of her long-time crush, Stuart; navigates her friendship and debate partnership with Maddie; reminisces about her childhood with bad-boy Cooper and tries to convince her parents that she is still well enough to attend NYU.
Sammie is a fighter. She’s trying to pack a whole life into the time she has, and she’s determined to win against a devastating disease. I thought her quirkiness and confidence were particularly endearing, and I really enjoyed reading about her family’s interesting dynamic and somewhat alternative lifestyle. This is another book to recommend to fans looking for heart-breaking stories like All the Bright Places,The Fault in Our Stars and Thirteen Reasons Why. This book is also a 2018-19 Gateway Nominee.
The Paper Time Capsule
While on a girls’ trip last year, I just happened to stumble on this little gem:
I LOVE the idea of traditional time capsules, and plan to bury one in my backyard this year to celebrate the birth of my baby in May (more on that soon!). But, as you know if you’ve read some of my past blog posts, I’m also a fan of writing sappy letters to some of my dearest friends and the owner of my childhood bookstore. The paper time capsule I found on my girls’ trip includes 12 fold-out cards, each with a writing prompt to inspire you to share a special message with mom. Prompts include “One thing I’m glad we share is. . .”, “I always think of you when. . .” and “The best adventure we’ve ever had together was. . .” Filling out the cards is the perfect #plotdrivenlife experience to complement Lara Avery’s book.
I chose to cut out the cards, and I’m going to fill them out periodically and mail them to my mom who lives in British Columbia, Canada, so she unexpectedly gets a special treat from me. You could fill out all the cards in the capsule and send it in its entirety if you prefer. Regardless, I think this is a powerful way to communicate gratitude and appreciation for my mom for all of the sacrifices she’s made for me, and, at the same time, it lets me celebrate some of my favorite memories of our time together. You could easily make your own cards and time capsule, but I just loved the cuteness of the cards with their “air mail” stickers and pretend postage stamps. In fact, I loved the capsule so much, I bought one for my dad, too.
There are a variety of other paper time capsules available to send to loved ones and even a version you can send to your future self. What I know from reading The Memory Book and having grieved the passing of beloved family members is that now is the time to treasure our memories and cherish the people we hold the closest. Would you prefer to send a paper time capsule to a loved one or write letters to your future self to store away? And what suggestions do you have for me to put in my traditional time capsule to commemorate 2019?
If I had to choose one genre to read for the rest of my life, I’d choose mystery. I love true crime tv, podcasts like Serial, and I’ll forever have a special place in my heart for all of Mary Higgins Clark’s formulaic murder mysteries. My husband jokes that he sleeps with one eye open because I have an extensive knowledge of how to kill and get away with it. But seriously– suspenseful, spooky murder mysteries are my jam. I’ve read several great books lately that fit into this category, but this particular book, People Like Us by Dana Mele, still haunts me:
One girl is dead, found drowned in the lake on the grounds of a prestigious, private all-girls school. Unfortunately, Kay Donovan and her friends were the ones to find the dead girl, Jessica Lane, and now Kay is a suspect. Kay’s mean-girl ways combined with her part in the deaths of her brother and best friend don’t work in her favor. To complicate matters, Kay receives an email from Jessica, blackmailing her into ruining the lives of her friends if she wants to clear her own name.
Kay teams up with social outcast Nola whose computer hacking skills may help Kay save her reputation and land the soccer scholarship she’s worked so hard to earn. Their research casts each of the people in Kay’s popular inner circle in terrible light–perpetrators of bullying, cheating, doping and worse–and it’s hard not to judge Kay for her own ruthless behavior and efforts to salvage her own reputation. She is a deeply flawed protagonist.
When additional bodies surface, Kay must face her past transgressions and hope that she can outsmart the killer (or ghost?) before she’s framed for murder.
This is the best mystery book I’ve read in a long time. It’s chilling, and Dana Mele’s characters are fascinatingly messed-up. The ending is a doozie, too. I highly recommend the audiobook.
The Lure of the Lemp
I was almost giddy about the #plotdrivenlife experience I chose for this book: to visit a locally haunted location. In People Like Us, it’s easy to believe Jessica Lane is haunting Kay through the wicked emails Kay receives. I was thrilled to have an excuse to book a ghost tour to a place that is notorious for its gruesome history and world-wide acclaim as a haunted house: the Lemp Mansion.
The Lemp is a foreboding building that sits just a few streets away from the sprawling property occupied by Anheuser Busch-InBev in downtown St. Louis. Mike and I visited the Lemp on an ugly, cold night in November when the house’s main floor was full of murder mystery dinner party guests who seemed to be having the time of their lives. We were there for a paranormal tour of the other floors of the mansion, armed with both a night-vision camera and an EMF (electromagnetic field) detector to hone in on nearby spirits. Before we set out in search of ghosts, we were treated to some Lemp family history and an explanation of why the mansion is believed to be so haunted. Our tour guide from the St. Louis Paranormal Research Society explained that the lavish house was once owned by the Lemp family who made their fortune in beer brewing during the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite their vast fortune and successful business, three Lemp men are believed to have committed suicide in the mansion, and, while official records claim young Elsa Lemp Wright also committed suicide, there is evidence that she was murdered by her husband after returning from their (second) honeymoon. Regardless, the mansion will give you the creeps!
The house has been renovated to mimic how it would have looked during the Lemp’s occupancy, and on a paranormal ghost tour, the hallways and rooms you are exploring are lit with just enough light that you won’t trip, break your neck, and add yourself to the list of household dead. Mike and I stumbled around with others on the tour, eager to locate a ghost with our equipment. Mike swears he caught sight of something with the night-vision camera, but I didn’t have much luck with the EMF detector. Nonetheless, the house feels like it holds dark secrets, and though it’s an option, you would never catch me spending the night! The experience of touring the house motivated me to attend an event at my local library about the mystery surrounding Elsa Lemp Wright’s murder, and I’m chomping at the bit to check out this documentary which is now scheduled to be released in 2020, 100 years after Elsa’s death.
There is so much about the Lemp that I want to explore in more detail: information about the cave system below the house, the mental illness that seemed to curse the family, and the evidence that has earned the house a place on reputable lists of the most haunted places in the USA. Stephen Wright’s book, Lemp: The Haunting History, is a great place to start, if you’re curious like me.
A tour to the Lemp was the perfect #plotdrivenlife experience to match the eerie vibe of People Like Us. What haunted locations have you visited, and would you ever consider staying overnight as a guest at the Lemp?
There are many things I wish I had done better in 2018, but the beauty of the new year is that we get to make fresh, new promises to ourselves and dream about what could be in the coming months. As I reflected on 2018, I thought about this little blog and how much more I would like it to be. I didn’t post much in 2018, and I read far fewer books than I intended, so I look to 2019 with the goal to read more, carry out more #plotdrivenlife experiences and share them with you, dear reader, here. I have a new website in the works, I am fired up about my upcoming posts, and I’m trying a new tactic to keep me on track this year: the 1% Rule, a strategy I learned about from a fellow Toastmaster, Daniel, at a recent meeting. The 1% Rule revolves around the idea that if we spend just 1% of our day–14 total minutes–dedicated to a passion project or goal, we are much more likely to succeed. Everyone has 14 minutes per day to dedicate to a project that brings joy. Sneak a few minutes of time for your own passion project while in a doctor’s office waiting room, during your lunch break or while riding in a car. I have high hopes that this strategy will breathe new life into this blog and fuel at least two new posts per month through December. Let’s start with the first post!
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
In March 2018, I wrote a post about how my life (and the lives of my family) had been forever changed when, after 66 years, my dad connected with his biological birth mother whom I have lovingly nicknamed, “BG” or Bonus Grandma. If you didn’t read that post, catch up by reading it here. In the post, I mentioned that I’d get the chance to meet BG over the summer at a family (re)union, and I did! I’ll share all of the details of that meeting after I share about Robin Benway’s book, Far From the Tree:
Holy moly; this book BLEW MY MIND. Without a doubt, it’s the best book I read in 2018, and I want to sing about it from the treetops. I’m hosting a book club for staff at my high school this year featuring titles that include characters who have experienced trauma, and this book made the shortlist.
The story alternates between three half-siblings who have never met: Grace, who, at sixteen, has just delivered a baby and made the gut-wrenching choice to give her up for adoption; Maya, the youngest of the three whose family’s wealth can’t shelter her from her mother’s drinking and her parents’ volatile marriage; and Joaquin, the oldest who has lived many lives as a foster kid, still without a forever family.
Grace’s decision to give up her daughter for adoption prompts her to want to search out her birth mother and siblings, and before long, she’s sitting in Maya’s dining room, trying to figure out what it means to be a sudden big sister. Maya and Grace email Joaquin who hesitantly agrees to meet, and the three begin to spend regular weekend dates together, trying to figure out their new normal. Grace pushes her siblings to help her find their mother, but because Grace feels overwhelming guilt and grief about her own decision to give up her baby, she keeps the secret from Maya and Joaquin. Maya and Joaquin’s own fractured lives further test the siblings’ delicate relationship.
My heart broke for these characters, but in particular, for Joaquin. His fear to connect with his foster parents because of his past trauma made me feel physical pain. More than once I was driving, listening to this book, and fighting back tears. This story packs a huge emotional punch, and I give it the highest recommendation.
In fairness, I read Far From the Tree after meeting my BG, but this book tied in so beautifully with the experience of uniting with my extended bonus family that it seemed like fate for me to read it in the same summer and include it as part of this blog post. This book explores both the joy and pain of connecting with biological family years after an adoption.
Meeting the Notorious BG
Mike and I traveled to Vancouver in early July 2018 and met up with the other members of my family for a few days before the reunion. On the day of the party, my mom and dad, aunt Janet, sister, Mike and I drove to BG’s town, just outside of Vancouver. I was figidty-nervous, and I can’t imagine how my dad must have felt anticipating this experience. Our bonus family had arranged for us to meet at the activity center in BG’s condo complex, and close to fifty guests were expected! Immediately after arriving, we were literally enveloped by my dad’s three sisters who are strong, kind women who love fiercely. I distinctly remember my bonus aunt Fiona holding me in a long hug that brought tears to my eyes. It’s a bittersweet thing, you see, to feel such an instant connection but to wonder how your life might be different if you’d known these lovely, genuine people all along.
As we circulated, I met countless cousins and family friends, two delightful great uncles, cousin Shelley who started the whole “investigation” and, of course, the notorious BG. BG had my heart in her hands from the moment I spotted her. To help us identify one another, we were asked to wear name tags, and instead of writing “Helen” or “mom” on hers, BG had written my nickname for her.
While I didn’t get to share much time with BG herself, the party felt like something out of a movie. BG, dad and Shelley gave moving speeches, friends and family shared favorite memories, and we played a matching game to find out interesting (and hilarious) facts about each other. My face hurt from smiling. As the guests began to leave, my bonus aunts pulled my mom, sister and me to an end table where we could talk and share, and they presented each of us with a beautiful Celtic knot necklace with the message, “Welcome to our clan.” Our bonus family could not have made us feel more special.
I feel so much joy for my dad who often has coffee with his younger bonus brother, is planning a vacation with his oldest sister and her husband, and has recently joined Facebook to connect with his newfound relatives. He so clearly “fits” into this family, even though he spent so many years apart. He didn’t fall so far from the tree.