Good Reads: Life and the giants we face

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

No two people live identical lives. No two people face all of the same hardships and challenges. Every life has its own giants.

Each story recommended below is about an individual (or individuals) who face or avoid their giants in unique and powerful ways.

The Doctor by James Verini, The Atavist

A Catholic doctor in Southern Sudan is the only surgeon for thousands of miles. Every day, he rises for mass and then works for hours upon hours, treating patients whose bodies have been torn apart, limbs blown off. The doctor could leave, he could go anywhere else to treat patients, but he stays. This piece answers the question of why.

Inheritance, Frontline

If you’ve heard of the Frontline documentary series, My Brother’s Bomber, you’re probably familiar with the story line of this multi-media piece. This piece uses audio recordings, music, video, photography, and the written word to tell Ken Dornstein’s story of wrestling with the loss of his older brother in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing of December 1988.

The Truth About New York’s Legendary Mole People by Anthony Taille, Narrative.ly

Don’t be distracted by the somewhat clickbait-y title. This piece is a work of literary reported art, rich with detail and fact. All about the hidden population that have made New York’s underground their home, this piece takes the reader into the world beneath, introducing the young mother who’s trying to get her feet under her so she can get her own place and get her daughter back, the woman in her 50s whose underground lair is piled with bags full of recyclables — her livelihood — the father who, when his child comes to visit, rents an apartment for the week so he won’t look like a bum.

What have you read lately that moved or inspired you?

Six months in New York City: A reflection

Tomorrow, Im leaving New York City for an indefinite amount of time. A lot has happened since I moved here six months ago. Here‘s a glimpse into a piece of my journey.

Who would have thought I’d arrive to New York City struggling to hold onto my faith and leave with it clasped anew between my hands? Places like these are where people come to forget about God, drown themselves in self, and abandon any idea of a loving, sacrificial, holy Creator. But coming here has renewed my faith.

Six months ago, I came here shaking (quite literally) in my boots, terrified of what my future may or may not have held. I was coming to the city where dreams come true, and I was not at all confident I could handle it. Being here made my dreams — those at the time and those forgotten from years past — feel possible, tangible, things I could reach. Now was my time. Don’t screw up; don‘t screw up, I told myself over and over, stressing myself out and making screwing up inevitable.

But as time went on, the fear and nervousness fell away, making room for me to be my genuine self, not the worry-wart who’d taken over my body. This was especially noticeable in my interactions with my co-workers at tbsp. I typically start a job quiet and get louder as time goes on, but this was different. I was a Christian twenty-something from rural nowhere come to New York City, working food service in Chelsea of all places. If loud, pushy liberal down-staters aren’t enough, throw in one of the most polarizing moral debates of our time. And then me, who hates arguing and, at that point, was having a hard time calling herself a Christian.

I don’t know how many months it was until the truth got out: Meredith’s a Christian, and she’s not doing homework before work — she’s reading her Bible.

They noticed I didn’t swear, but that action plus the cross in the logo on my hat didn’t connect for a conclusion of “Christian”. In fact, no one ever suggested Christian as a possibility. Catholic, yes. Mormon, yes. Christian, no. So I had to say the word and note, “There’s a big difference,” prepared to explain what the difference was.

By the time those situations came about, though, God had already done some major work on my heart — through conversations with my housemates, straight-up Bible preaching at church two and sometimes three times a week, and regular Bible reading (not to mention the people at church and bits of encouragement along the way from Christians I randomly met in the library, with a running group, and at a soccer tournament).

With every moment and word of truth and encouragement, God pulled me back, whispering, “See? I am real and present and active. You can trust me.”

And though I see-sawed from letting go slightly and holding on tightly — and, indeed, still struggle to trust God with my future — today, as I prepare to leave the city where dreams come true and return to Indiana for my first using-the-degree job, I am not the fear-filled, shaky, skittish girl I was six months ago. I am excited about my future and whatever it does or does not hold. I know that God is in control and that He will do a better job with my life than I ever could do on my own.

NYC Week Sixteen: Internship over, or positive self-talk

11:51 pm. MONDAY, MAY 19th.

I’ve been in writing mode all day. I haven’t written much, but my mind has been super focused and soaking up everything. My thoughts are toward the future, as in next week, when I come back from my college commencement and return to my bedroom in Queens, my food service job in Chelsea, and absolutely nothing solid in the writing realm. I’m applying to writing jobs, but there’s no guarantee of one working out in the near future, so the question is, what am I going to do?

School’s over. It’s been over since January. If I’m serious about this writing thing (which I have been, without a shadow of a doubt, since middle school, probably earlier), I need to get a move on. I need to write, whether someone tells/asks me to or not, and I need to write well, whether I’m in love with the assignment or not.

And I need to put myself out there.

It’s encouraging, the confidence people have in me when I don’t have it, myself. These past several months, I’ve been something of a turtle, tucked into my shell, too afraid to try because of the possibility of failure, but those I’ve worked under have continually encouraged me: My boss in University Marketing — when I was preparing to leave Taylor, come to New York for this internship, and then do who-knows-what-else — my boss told me there would probably be an opening for a writer, come spring, summer, or fall. “I don’t know exactly what the job description would be, but . . .” Practically a job offer. And the editor I worked under at City Limits, today when I met him over lunch for a recap with feedback, put out the possibility of collaborating on future investigative projects.

Today is the beginning of a revolution. At least, it feels like it. Toward the end of last week, I started writing right before bed, a habit I kept all through high school that played a major role in my development as a writer. I decided that’s a habit I’m bringing back, to make sure I write daily, whether it’s worthless garbage that isn’t worth reading and might as well go straight in the trash, or whether it’s super poetic prose that brings tears to your eyes.

Yesterday, I bought a friend’s self-published e-book and started reading it — to support him and familiarize myself with his work. Three chapters in, I decided I’m going to review it here. I also offered to help him with editing in upcoming projects. Fiction was my first love, the entry drug to writing, and I miss working on it, so I’m going to get back into it — on the editorial side, as well as writing my own again. (Man, I feel like a writer again.)

Today, after talking with my editor from City Limits, finding out I was the first intern he ever had work, for the most part, independently on an investigative project, and discussing various ways of getting into the narrative nonfiction niche professionally, I went to Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue with the purpose of buying a copy of Writer’s Market 2014. Price disparities between the web site and the store brought me to the decision to get it online instead. (I feel like a traitor, but then I remember I saved fifteen bucks — more than an hour’s worth of wages.) Then, looking through the other writing books, I picked up a copy of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University. It’s a compilation of professional writers’ contributions on the topic of narrative nonfiction (can you hear the “Hallelujah Chorus?”), covering everything from the ideology (extraordinary ordinary) to methodology (reporting, writing, etc.). Needless to say, I bought it. And immediately began reading. And in no ways regret spending that money.

Then I came home, and though I didn’t write anything substantial until now (unless you count the summaries for my Good Reads post), I was in writing mode the rest of the day. I had a lot to do: cleaning two bathrooms and the kitchen, laundry, two blog posts (this and Good Reads), buying my second Amtrak ticket for my trip, purchasing necessities at CVS, working out (new record: 1.4 in 10:22!). I got it all done, stayed on task, was hardly distracted. And here I am at 12:27, still wired and wanting something else to work on, even though I need to be up in six and a half hours.

Life. I’m getting excited about it again. I don’t have anything specific to look forward to after graduation. It’s kind of wide open while simultaneously closed, because of money matters, but I’m encouraged. Because it doesn’t matter where I am or what I have. I can do good work if I decide to. Today, I decide to.

MondayLunch with City Limits editor + all of the above.

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Took the Amtrak to Albany and went home.

Thursday: Drove almost twelve hours from upstate New York to Upland, Indiana, with my 17-year-old sister in the passenger seat. Reunited with friends and wingmates.

Friday: Visited my former boss in University Marketing (who reiterated what she’d said in January about the job opening). Graduation rehearsal, more reunions. Senior banquet and chapel service.

Saturday: Commencement.

NYC Week Fifteen: How New York City Beat Arson

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

This week, after a long, drawn-out research process that often had me missing the forest for the trees, I finally finished my internship piece to my editor’s satisfaction and he published it on City Limits’ web site.

It is by no means the best thing I’ve ever written, but I wrote it. I did the work (with direction), mapped out the piece, and wrote the 2,000-ish words.

It begins:

On June 14, 1974, an apartment building at 180 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, went up in flames and took the lives of Carmen Molina and two children who, with the rest of their family—the children’s father and another daughter—were preparing to move out of the building.

The Molinas lived on the building’s third and top floor. The fire escape was gated and locked. The father, Miguel, jumped from the third floor to get help, but on impact, broke multiple bones.

Sonia, 9, the middle daughter, was spending the night in her grandmother’s home not far away. At dawn, she and her grandmother woke to pounding on the door. It was Sonia’s aunt, come with news of the fire.

Read more.

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Mother’s Day. I talked to my mom for almost three hours.

Monday: Finished revising my piece for my internship. Worked out.

Tuesday: Work. Worked out.

Wednesday: Internship over, so I stayed home and worked my creative muscles.

Collage

Thursday: Work. Worked out.

Friday: Work. Wrote and read before bed.

Saturday: Read longform articles in preparation for Monday’s post in my new series of blog posts. Choir practice. Ran and then took a walk, because the indoors are confining and, guess what? It was beautiful outside!

Next week, I’m traveling to Indiana for my college commencement, so most of my week won’t be spent in the City. But no worries — I’ll still post for Week Sixteen, the final weekly NYC post. After that, my Good Reads posts will continue and, hopefully, I’ll have some freelance work to link to.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share related thoughts below.

NYC Week Fourteen: 10 things I miss about home and school (aka rural America)

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

I’d just settled on the bench, purse and my bag of leftover food from work on my lap, one per leg. Done with work, time to wait for the F train and go home.

“Meredith?”

I looked up to see a familiar face, soft round features I recognized but couldn’t place. Danny’s, I knew that’s where I knew her from but . . . I felt my brain sputtering to find a name. None came.

“It’s Kyle,” she said.

Kyle. Yes. That’s right. The name I was trying to remember was wrong — I was thinking of her doppelganger who’d worked nextdoor.

“Is this for real?” she asked, half smiling.

“Yeah.” My only word. Still in shock.

“Do you live in the city?”

The M train screeched to a stop. The doors opened.

“Yeah.” Again, all I could manage.

“All right — me, too. I have to get on this train, but it’s good to see you.”

“Yeah.”

She climbed aboard. I stayed where I was, smelling tbsp on me, thinking of Danny’s, and trying to soak in what just happened.

In a city of 8 million strangers, I’d run into someone I knew from home.

Growing up in small town America — “small town” meaning a town with two main intersecting roads and no traffic light — running into someone I knew required only that I step out the front door. Or the back door. Neighbors, even if I didn’t know them well, I always greeted with a “how’s it going” when I passed them in their driveways on my way to the library, bank, post office, or park. I only didn’t vocally greet neighbors if I was running or if they were the creepy ones. But I took for granted that I’d see people I knew — even if I traveled 45 minutes to the nearest Walmart, I expected to run into a familiar face.

It’s not like that here. There’s one older short, black man I end up on the same bus and train with every once in a while. We nod our acknowledgements and occasionally shrug our shoulders at each other in response to weirdos on the F. But that’s it. And my not seeing people I know isn’t just because I don’t know anyone — even New York natives are surprised when they run into a friend on the street.

There are a lot of things I miss about home and school, living in the City. Most of them have to do with fundamental differences between rural America and urban life, and most of them I rarely thought about before living here. Running into familiar faces is one. Below are nine more.

1. Going “the back way” on quiet dirt roads canopied by trees.

There’s nothing like following a long day of work with a quiet drive through the hills. The roads are narrow — I typically pray the whole time that no one will come the other way — but the silence, the scenery, and the dirt and stones your tires kick up as you ride over hole after hole is well worth it.

2. Air that smells like water, dirt, and trees — not exhaust fumes, smoke, and dust.

Because even the exhaust coming out the back of your little 2001 Corolla doesn’t ruin what the trees and creeks are giving back. And let’s face it — people, even when they try to smell good, still smell bad.

3. Local food that’s actually local, as in you picked it yourself in your backyard or your neighbor’s field.

If it’s not in season, it’s not fresh and it’s not local. Strawberries are one of the first crops to ripen. Then raspberries, then tomatoes, then blueberries, apples, corn, potatoes. Picking, processing, and freezing things yourself is the best (though labor-intensive).

4. Backyards with enough room to play volleyball, soccer, and run through a sprinkler — all with their own space.

This would be my backyard at home. And a lot of my neighbors’. Plus, there’s a park two blocks away with basketball court, playground, baseball diamond, and enough grass for casual soccer and football games to take place simultaneously. When I’m home for less than 24 hours in a week and a half, I’m going to find some grass and roll in it.

5. Fresh roadkill venison you don’t think twice about eating because you know who hit it and when.

I grew up eating more deer meat than beef, and I miss it like crazy. It’s a meat you eat and still feel healthy afterward. At least, I do. And yes, a lot of what I ate was hit by someone’s car. These things happen on dark, curvy roads at night. No reason to let the animal go to waste.

6. Open fields, open roads, and open roads next to open fields.

One of my favorite views is driving home south on 205, where the road runs along the hillside and the valley lies spread out beside it, trees, fields, a barn here and there. You realize how big this one corner of the world is, and then how big the world must be in comparison, and how small you are. And you quiet.

7. Quiet.

No trains rumbling past. No airplanes or helicopters flying low overhead. Cars, but few buses, little honking, screeching brakes typically belonging to teenagers or a tractor-trailer or that guy nobody likes. Sirens, but not constantly and always making way for a crew of emergency personnel you trust, because you know them. They live down the street.

8. Trees. Good for climbing or just sitting under.

Maybe an evergreen or a maple. And if it’s maple, best if someone taps it in the spring for sap — thus, real maple syrup. Trees are everywhere: the front, back, and side yards; the edges of the park, all over the hills that border you on every side. In the fall, they’re the best: orange, yellow, red, evergreen. In the winter: snow-tipped, the pines looking like frosted shredded wheat or something equally sugary and delicious. In the spring: new leaves, like a new page of a new life, budding from thickening branches. In the summer: green, green, green. All shades.

9. A clear, cool creek you can wade in barefoot and follow under the road and into town in one direction, or up the hill and into the woods the other way.

Toward what we like to call “civilization” or away from it, into what actually looks more orderly and less chaotic than anything people put together. No honking bus drivers or swearing cabbies, no swerving around or weaving through slow-but-not-really lanes of traffic, no derailing trains or flooding subway stations — because there aren’t any. Just you and creation. And the reality that, yes, this is good.

M3367S-4504205

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church. Worked out (my route in 10:38 plus sprints and various other things).

Monday: Internship. Worked out (included 51 push-ups).

Tuesday: Work. Worked out (sprints with my housemate, plus core).

Wednesday: Internship. Worked a catering event for Spoon.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work. Made a specific goal of applying to writing jobs this weekend. Ran into Kyle while waiting for the train to come home.

Saturday: Mother’s Day brunch at church (always a weird thing to be part of as a woman who’s nowhere near motherhood). Choir. Worked out (highlight: box jumps on the front step). Did laundry. Read narrative nonfiction/longform articles (reading recommendations coming tomorrow). Wrote this blog post.

NYC Week Thirteen: The fight to stay fit

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

It’s a battle I’ve been losing.

Sure, I ran 1.4 miles today in 10:38. Sure, I followed it up with sprints and crunches and pushups. Sure, I got my heart rate up and didn’t feel awful. But I am not where I was three months ago, when I was working on getting to a pull-up, doing weighted squats, deadlifts, going hard for an hour at least three, if not four or five, times a week.

I felt my muscles begin to atrophy months ago, when I was here in the dead of winter with snow piled on the ground and no gym membership or free weights to get me moving indoors. Transition periods are always tough for me; the things I love — music, creative work (i.e. arts and crafts), Bible time, physical activity — typically fall to the wayside, even though doing those things keeps me healthy and functional.

Yesterday, I decided, with the arrival of May and nice weather (even when it’s raining), excuses for not working out are no longer an option. So in the evening (after a pre-afternoon workout with my housemate, choir practice, and grocery shopping), I sat down on my bed with the one permanent marker I brought to the City and a paper bag I’d brought home from work (the only blank paper I currently have). After unfolding the bag and flattening it out, I cut off a piece, brought a desk drawer over to use as a platform, and drew lines across the paper, dividing the space into a graph of the days of the week and the hours of the day, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Then, I filled in my known schedule — internship, work, church, choir — and started eyeing empty space for working out.

I realized, in this process, that working out isn’t the only thing I’ve neglected over the past three months: I haven’t made a single thing since I came here. Cutting up that paper bag and writing on it is the closest I’ve gotten to a craft. I’ve saved things — brochures, clippings from newspapers, programs — but I haven’t even attempted a collage, because . . . I don’t have glue.

Arts and crafts are a natural pasttime for me. My family sees potential where others see trash. It’s part of living cheaply, and it’s also just part of who we are. My mom collects postage stamps and uses them for decoupage on homemade boxes. My little brother makes stuffed animals and dolls out of random pieces of fabric. I used to make bags out of hole-y jeans and, just last summer, made an apron out of two pieces of discarded clothing. Scissors, glue, needle, thread — that’s really all that’s necessary for any of this and, yet, I haven’t made a single thing. I haven’t even touched the knitting I brought with me.

And that’s not all: Yesterday, after choir practice, I sat down at the piano to try and play a song I’m singing with another girl for special music. My fingers were stiff and clumsy — nowhere near where they were in January, after finishing a semester of piano lessons that had me playing Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven. I realized: I haven’t played piano since I was at Taylor, and now I feel like a true novice.

Weaker, weaker, weaker . . . that’s how I feel in all of these areas — even writing, unfortunately. The only place I feel stronger is my faith, and that’s because I’ve actually been reading my Bible on a regular basis. But all of these other areas, they’re important, too. They’re part of me as a multi-interest individual who thrives on new experiences, learning, growing. They keep me in tune to the possibilities around me and aware of the potential in random inanimate objects, as well as people. They improve my brain function, rhythm, coordination. And they keep me healthy, confident, and strong.

Looking at my paper bag schedule for this week, I’m realizing it’s not just working out I need to work on. It’s also creativity, piano, and wordsmith-ing.

The battle I’ve been losing isn’t over, yet. There’s still a chance I can turn things around, regain some core strength, pick up the pace, have something to show for these four months other than bitten nails, worn-out jeans, and poor posture. This week — and the rest leading up to May 24 (my college commencement) — that’s the goal. Improvement.

 

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church.

Monday: Internship. Work. Worked out again with TMIRCE. This time, it was their track workout, which I was hoping would be more up my alley. Turned out, they still run the track for distance: we did long intervals adding up to three miles. It killed me.

Squats TMIRCE

(Note: My squat stance is a bit wide, but it was literally the only way my exhausted legs could pull off the motion. That’s how out of shape I am.)

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. Work. Choir. Church.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work.

Saturday: Worked out with my housemate. Choir practice. Grocery shopping. Paper bag scheduling.

NYC Week Twelve: A conglomeration of thoughts

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

Time is currency. And this week, mine was spent — in research and at work. With it went my energy, so rather than sitting at my desk for three-plus hours, badgering myself to write something worth reading, I present the following: a conglomeration of thoughts, quoted and original, that I’ve written down over the past three months. Enjoy.

“There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity. . . . Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.” ~ Roger Angell, “This Old Man“, The New Yorker

“Your art is a gift to people.” ~ Will Smith

“Like a muscle, creativity is a ‘use it or lose it’ capability.” ~ Barbara Diane Barry, “How Painting Helped Me Overcome Life’s Roadblocks“, Greatist.com

“You can’t make any sense of any fact without putting it into any sort of narrative structure.” ~ Tim Keller

“Is there any meaning for me in life that the inevitable death does not destroy?” ~ Tolstoy

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” ~ Jesus, Luke 21:33

“Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

Start a story in the middle of action, but not with the heart of the action. Let that come later.

“Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” James 4:17

“God gives us scary stuff sometimes, but He doesn’t make us do it by ourselves.” The world is full of people who don’t know God and, thus, in the face of eternity, panic. “We should not look like that.” ~ Dr. Aaron Housholder, Taylor University chapel message

“Stay with me; do not be afraid, for he who seeks my life seeks your life. With me you shall be in safekeeping.” 1 Samuel 22:23

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

“God has not given us the spirit of fear: but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord . . . but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the Gospel according to the power of God.” 2 Timothy 1:7&8

“If I don’t have jack, my eye still be on the sparrow.” ~ KB, “Be All Right

“Pride always has shame and ruin at its heels.” ~ Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

If New York was London and chimney sweeps were still a thing, the sweeps would have turf battles on the rooftops with graffiti artists. (Ride the 7 train to Queens and look out the windows — you’ll understand.)

“We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4

“If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:10c

“The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” Galatians 3:24

A person in a library containing all the world’s books would never sit down and try to write his own.

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

“If your salvation is by grace alone, it is kept by grace alone.” ~ Vincent Sawyer

 

Best thing I read this week (outside of the Bible): “In Deep: The dark and dangerous world of extreme cavers” by Burkhard Bilger. This, folks, is what I want to write.

 

Bringing you up-to-date:

This week sapped me of energy and kept me occupied.

Sunday: Easter. Church, lunch with the landlords. This precious moment.

Monday: Internship. Interviewed a Harvard professor, as well as a founder of one of Brooklyn’s community development organizations.

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. More research at the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library.

Thursday: Work. This:

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 10.56.28 PM

(If you’re thinking, “What’s Parkour?” here’s an example.)

Friday: Work.

Saturday: Work.