My Ruby Slippers, The Road Back to Kansas by Tracy Seely……..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley is a wonderful story about how “place” defines us. Tracy had lived in 7 different towns and 13 different houses by the time she was nine years old. Finally, she adopted California as her home and grew tired of the “Wizard of Oz” references whenever she mentioned where she had grown up.“There’s no place like home? Are you kidding? Nearly everyone I meet here has escaped Kansas or somewhere like it, and no one dreams of going home. Who would give up her sparkling ruby dancing shoes for a farm house in the middle of a desiccated nowhere?”

And not unlike Dorothy, a tornado (but this time of an emotional sort) drew Tracy back to explore the places that she temporarily called home. After her parents died two weeks apart from each other, Tracy found a list of addresses barely secured with aged tape inside of her baby book and ultimately decided to find out about where she really came from. She says, “Now I’d lost my chance to ask my parents for more. But in their dying, I’d also gained the freedom from being their child. I could map our emotional landscapes to the places we had lived, free of their watchful and wary eyes.”

A lot of things happen to the author that aren’t so fabulous but she is never whiny and does not seem angry (although I am sure that was a hard fought settling in of acceptance). I love the conversational, reflective tone of the story. It really is about discovery that slowly reveals itself and, just as slowly, is digested. As I read this book, I felt like I could have been sitting next to the author on a long flight, getting to know her. At times, it was as if she was talking about someone else, simply sharing insights and  memories and allowing those listening to draw conclusions for themselves. Tracy’s own story delicately unfolds amid the history of many of the places she visited. History buffs will be particularly drawn in to these parts of the book.

Toward the beginning of her story, Tracy takes a class on meditation. She learned to practice focused, deliberate breathing. That is how reading her story feels – deep breath in…..exhale….. deep breath in again.

Tracy shares a lot with the reader about what it meant to be a part of her family on a very personal level. She allows the reader to like and dislike both of her parents. Her father was a selfish man who inflicted a lot of emotional pain on the pivotal women in his life, assuming  that their forgiveness was automatic, even when it wasn’t earned or asked for. Her mother was forgiving to a fault. Tracy’s father wrote down his own mini-memoir in letters to his own brother before he died. In his final act of  abandonment and betrayal, Tracy was not included in the story.

There are some sub-stories that she dangles but does not explore very deeply. We don’t learn much about her own children and I never fully understood why her sister wanted to commit suicide. She does not delve too far into her own experience with breast cancer. At one point, she mentions that she has a slant towards ghosts but never expands on that.

Maybe more books are coming – and that would be a very good thing. I would love to hear about the other parts of her life.

All in all, though, this is a story worth reading. Tracy magically captured how places grow along with the people who absorb them and why that matters. She writes, “It’s about inhabiting every place, fully knowing why the land is there and what it teaches. Living in ways that sustain the ecology of our place. And that includes the people.”

Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown………..

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Imagine taking your deepest darkest secret that is tangled and seeping with fear and embarrassment  and criticism and compassion and misunderstanding and writing a book about it. Then put your name and your picture on the cover for all the world to see.

That is what Harriet Brown did in Brave Girl Eating. Her daughter “Kitty” is a smart, talented, successful young lady and a competitive gymnast who falls deep into the chasm of anorexia around the age of 14. Harriet chronicles their journey and sprinkles in a lot of scientific data (that can get a little thick if you are thankfully not looking for answers – but the statistics are absolutely gut-wrenching).

It’s a memoir but it also serves as a reminder to keep a watchful eye on our children and to not ignore the warning signs that are very easily shrugged off – not just for anorexia, but for everything.

Harriet’s approach to tackling the demon that is anorexia took her off the traditional treatment map where families are generally blamed in large part for the disease. Harriet understood that by the time families seek therapy, they are a mess, they are struggling, and they are scared. They also often feel like the are out of options and are quickly running out of time. It is at this point that most girls are removed from their families and sent away to residential treatment centers.

However, Harriet researched and then embraced Family Based Therapy (FBT) which kept her daughter at home with her and her husband. She fought with her daughter over nearly every morsel she ate, she lost her patience, she feared (probably fears) for her daughter’s life, she counted every single calorie, she cried, and she kept going. She didn’t always know what to do but she always did something.

All the while, Harriet has her own battles – as every parent in America does – she suffered panic attacks and was herself 30 pounds overweight. She struggled that Kitty struggled with not becoming her. That’s tough.

Her story dabbles in how Kitty’s anorexia affects the rest of the family but it does not focus on it. Kitty’s story consumes them all in different ways but does not afford them much opportunity to focus on anything else. The story reflects that.

Harriet talks about how anorexia immediately changes what you find acceptable – how it shatters your confidence in what you believe you know. Every fight with Kitty was about deciding what to give in on and what to stand firm on. She details realizing that there was the Kitty that she knew and loved and the Not Kitty who was a fighter and manipulative and scary in many ways – but also desperate and strong and not willing to go away easily.

Harriet explains the devastating impact of malnutrition not only on the body but also on the brain’s ability to reason. She chronicles how hard it was to feed Kitty enough so that she could gain weight – toward the end of the book, Kitty was eating nearly 4,000 calories a day and still not gaining weight. Because not only did Kitty not want to eat, she was growing taller – which constantly changed her target weight. And anorexia completely changed Kitty’s metabolism so that she needed so many more calories than the average teenaged girl – yet she remained under her target weight. As Harriet says, they were chasing a moving target and never really got close enough to touch it.

There were two things that stuck with me the most throughout the story. One was when Harriet tells of Kitty smelling sour because her body was digesting itself. That brought me to my knees. It was devastating to comprehend all of the realizations of just how deep in trouble Kitty really was that must of come with that.

The other was when Harriet ran into another mother at the grocery store who asked her how Kitty was doing. She had heard Kitty was sick. She hoped she was doing well. Oh, and by the way, she could have told Harriet that Kitty was sick. Harriet was furious – she really wanted to know why this friend hadn’t said anything.

That’s easy, right? We all know the answer to that. We all hold back our concerns when the stakes are the highest. Because we don’t want to overstep our bounds or pry. We are afraid to meddle. What if we are wrong? But I guess we need to start asking, what if we are right? We probably all know of a child who is in trouble or on the verge of trouble and we step back. We assume the parents know. And of course there is a danger in upsetting the parents. But there are dangers that are far graver than that.

This entire story was fascinating to me. I know with two daughters and a son, there will be a point when we are exposed in some way to eating disorders – whether it be through friends or girlfriends or (hopefully not) our own children. Even with my adult  friends and family – the potential exists. I pray that we never see anorexia’s ugly face up close in personal in our children’s lives but there is a good chance we will. This book gave me a chance to learn about it in a non-urgent way.

The book is not a “why me” story. It is filled with action and reaction but it is never a sob story in the sense of asking for pitying. It seems to really scream – you don’t want this to happen to you, but it if does, maybe this will help.

Harriet was careful not to share real numbers from Kitty’s experience because she feared that young women would use the book as a model, a how to guide. That was also one of Harriet’s biggest reasons for resisting entering Kitty into a residential program. She was afraid of Kitty learning too much from the experts – not the therapists – the patients.

All in all, it was well worth reading. If you have a child or a mother or a sister or even a friend, consider investing some time in this story.

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan…..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

A friend gave me this book to read because I am also in the Middle Place – as are so many of my friends – that place where you are still someone’s child and yet someone’s parent. Other people have said that this book is about Kelly’s journey with cancer. I am not so sure about that. She certainly talks about her discovery, diagnosis, and treatment but the focus of this book seems to be more about her role as daughter. Her father’s daughter.

Nearly everything in the book rolls back to a connection with her dad. Which in many ways is lovely. I have a rock star dad and never want to lose my identity as his daughter. However, I was surprised that when her father was diagnosed with cancer she quit, for the most part, telling her own story of her own battle with her own cancer and adopted his. We hear about his doctor’s visits and his pain and his ability to fight his battle. And, oh by the way, Kelly seems to be doing fine – she becomes a subplot. She tosses aside the role of protagonist in her own story. There is even a point in the book where she is discussing treatment options for her father with her own doctor right before surgery. Her husband does point out that this is actually her surgery not her dad’s. No kidding.

Her father is surely a larger-than-life character with charm and charisma and he very obviously had a tremendous impact on how Kelly sees the world and rotates in it. He gives her strength that she cannot fully explain and love that she knows will never be taken away. He gives her the gift that I hope I am giving my children – acceptance.

There are several flashbacks in the book that don’t seem to relate to the thread of her life with cancer or to her life as a child and a parent. But they are snapshots of her life as a daughter. Certainly her experiences with her dad shaped the way she handles her own cancer but we miss some of the stories of the impact cancer must have had on her life and her family’s life. And, to be fair, part of that might be Kelly’s practical approach to “it is what it is”. She doesn’t seem to wallow in self pity or really even ask why cancer happened to her. She seems to just do what it takes to move forward – sometimes with a beer in hand.

She talks about her role as a mother and a wife and the role of being the daughter of a mother – which is, funny enough, different from being the daughter of a father.

Kelly has a sense of humor and does not take herself too seriously. Gotta love that. She is an optimist for sure. When she finds out she has cancer, she sends out an invitation to a party a year in the future that will be celebration of all that is behind them. And she is not afraid to admit her mistakes.

Best of all, Kelly has a wonderful way of saying things. When talking about gaining weight, she simply says, “before college added things to my body that laziness has created a permanent home for.” Now that does sound more poetic than “I am fatter than I used to be” or “wow, my jeans just must have shrunk in the dryer”. So her voice is engaging and entertaining.

All in all it was a good book. I finished it in 2 days which means it is a super easy read because I am not a fast reader at all. There were funny parts and sad parts. I am not sure she shared all the raw emotions that she felt – and maybe that made it easier to read because it was never gut-wrenchingly sad.

I am not sure Middle Place was the best title. Maybe “My Father’s Daughter” would have been better.

Maybe she didn’t focus as much on her role as a wife and a mother because there wasn’t the same urgency there. Her children and her husband were healthy and available and by her side. Her mother and her brothers seemed predictable and present – but please don’t read that as boring.

Her father battled cancer once before when Kelly was younger and living out of the country. Her family kept the news from her so that she wouldn’t end her adventure early. Maybe she wanted to reclaim possession of her presence in his life and treatment this time. Her father was battling for his life at the same time Kelly was and that must have been a scary place, whether it was in the middle or not.

And I guess everyone, every where is in some sort of Middle Place. We are all trying to figure out where we fit in the world and it’s often between opposites – student or teacher, parent or child, patient or caregiver, success or failure – and why can’t we simply be all of them at once? Why do we ever have to choose?

In the Meantime………A funny thing happened on the way to the future…..

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I am getting together my thoughts on the White Tiger and they will be coming soon to a post new you. But in the meantime, I read a Readers Digest article on Micheal J. Fox’s new book – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future: Twists and Turns and Lessons Learned.

First let me say that I love, love, love Readers Digest. It is a great way to get some reading in without committing to hundreds of pages. I always learn something and I always laugh. If I let myself read the survivor stories, I always cry too.

The May 2010 issue featured an article written by Amy Wallace on Michael J. Fox’s new book. If you grew up in the 80s, you will surely remember him mostly for his absolute pain-in-the-smartarse-that-you-cannot-help-but-love tv personality of Alex on Family Ties. He is also very well known for his role as Marty McFly in Back to the Future.

He was diagnosed with Parkinsons in 1991 and somewhat disappeared from the stage for a while. It seems like he is back full force participating in life and lucky for us that he is. I am crazy about the title of this book – since it captures so much of who he has appeared to us to be – and I cannot wait to read it.

It’s ironic that he is remembered most for his past roles because, in the article, he claims proudly that his recipe for happiness is to live in the moment and leave the past behind.

He is quoted with quite a few tidbits of life philosophy that will be good for all of us to remember:

Key to Marriage – give each other a break.

Parenting Advice – always be available to your kids.

Just in General – “Don’t waste time imagining the worst case scenario. It rarely goes down like you think it will and if by some fluke it does, you will have lived it twice.”

I am off to the book store Amazon.com ………….