“Active Hope” by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone

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Subtitle: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy

This book, published in 2012, is a practical manual on how to live in challenging times. It has only become more necessary since it first came out.

It starts with three stories of our times, Business As Usual, the Great Unraveling, and the Great Turning. The book is written to those with enough privilege to choose Business As Usual, with encouragement to avoid the despair of staying in the Great Unraveling of runaway climate change, and choose the Great Turning toward sustainable lifestyles instead. Oddly, the book does not address privilege directly at all. It does look like they’re moving toward more awareness of oppression.

Joanna Macy leads workshops in the Work That Reconnects, a four step process. It is rooted in gratitude, grows into honoring our pain, blooms into seeing with new eyes, and creates seeds of going forth, taking action. These steps can happen in the span of a lifetime, and in the span of a few minutes. We go around the steps repeatedly, in a spiral. More about the spiral, with a great image.

Gratitude reconnects us with the web of life that supports us, and reminds us that we do not live in isolation. We are part of that interconnected web, part of the living Earth.

Honoring our pain and the pain of the earth allows that energy to move through us, and to move us toward action. It also gives permission to those around us to acknowledge their own pain, and connects us with each other in witnessing and giving/receiving support.

When we shift into gratitude and acknowledge our pain, we can shift to a larger perspective and connect both with our inner witness self, and with the voice of our community and the earth. We can start to see our power-within and power-with, instead of staying in hopelessness or power-over.

The seeds of action come from that wider perspective, and from opening to visions of how we want to live and how we can get there. We ask what wants to move through us. We move in the direction of our strengths, and treat our enthusiasm as a renewable resource that needs maintenance. We reach out for support.

We live with uncertainty. We don’t know whether things will turn toward being better or worse, so we lean our small weight in the direction of better. We gradually (or suddenly) move toward living more sustainably and happily.

Recommended for finding a way forward in these difficult times. This book is based in environmental activism, but is more generally applicable. It does point out that anyone living in the story of the Great Turning is an activist, whether we go to protests or not. No matter what the ultimate outcome is, I’d rather live day to day incrementally supporting the world I want to see, rather than contributing to the disaster by ignoring it or despairing.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“This Is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel

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Subtitle: A Novel

Recommended to me by: a friend

A wonderful multi-layered novel about a doctor, her poet-husband, and their five kids, the youngest of whom insists on wearing dresses. The family brims with love and wackiness as they struggle with the many dilemmas of being themselves. They shelter their youngest member as best they can from society’s dysfunctional responses to someone who does not slot neatly into the gender binary.

Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“All Your Worth” by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi

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Subtitle: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan

Recommended to me by: Lis

This is a practical, down-to-earth book written in a warm, reassuring style by a mother-daughter team. The authors know that most readers will have a great deal of anxiety about finances, so they try to settle that first thing.

Their plan:
From your total income after taxes
50% Must-Haves
30% Wants
20% Savings

The goal is to get finances running smoothly so that they can be in the background rather than the foreground.

Their plan makes sense to me, which means it’s congruent with the financial advice I absorbed growing up. Minimize debt, even for a mortgage. Reduce recurring expenses as much as possible. Shop carefully for insurance, since it’s essentially betting against yourself. Saving is important. And, as I have learned over time, it’s important to have fun and enjoy life, too.

The plan is based on having a salary, so I’ve been thinking about how to apply it to a sole proprietor business. I think I’ll have to add a second set of categories for the business, and guesstimate the taxes as a straight percentage of income. Still, it seems useful enough to me to be worth going to the trouble of figuring out what my Must-Haves are.

They say Must-Haves are recurring expenses that you can’t put off for six months. Anything else goes into Wants. I think that blurs expenses for maintenance for the house and yard and business. Those can be delayed, but not put off forever. I might add a sub-category for that under Wants and see how much room it takes up. It’s also unclear to me where major expenses like a new roof fall. You save up for them, and they’re optional for a while until something goes wrong and suddenly they’re a Must-Have.

The book was published in 2005, and they have the same cheerfully optimistic advice about the stock market that I received with my first 401k in 1991. After losing my first chunk of retirement savings in the dot-bomb of 2001 and then watching my socially conscious investments stagnate, I no longer think the stock market is a viable savings strategy for socially conscious investors. I haven’t come up with a good alternate strategy, however.

I’ve also seen the rule, 10% of after-tax income for charity and making the world a better place. I was surprised not to see charity brought up anywhere in this book. I suppose that falls under Wants, but to me it seems like an important category. They wanted to keep things very simple.

The last section of the book is about planning for financial emergencies – job loss, serious illness, etc. Plan which Wants to cut first. Plan how to reduce Must-Haves if becomes necessary. It even has a section on how and when to declare bankruptcy.

Recommended for a practical, reassuring way to think about your finances.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“My Brother’s Husband” by Gengoroh Tagame

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Translated from the Japanese by Anne Ishii

Recommended to me by: Yatima in the 50 books by POC community

Yatima found this graphic novel via its blurb by Alison Bechdel and recommended it enthusiastically. I loved it too.

Mike Flanagan, Canadian white guy, visits his dead husband’s brother and niece in Japan. They are both traditionally Japanese. Yaichi the brother has a lot of unexamined homophobia and buried emotions, but invites Mike to stay with them anyway. Kana the niece didn’t know that men could marry each other, but responds to Mike warmly.

The book handles relationships and emotions tenderly. Kana is adorable. This book is about the small things in life, meals and sleeping and showers, and the largest things, death and loss and love and relationships and coming out as gay.

The characters are kind to one another. There is something to be said for polite emotional reserve. Some drawings show what Yaichi is yelling inside his head, and the neutral things he says out loud.

As is traditional for Manga, the book reads right to left. I had to be careful to read the panels in the right order on each page. Apparently there are more volumes to come!

Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Taming Your Gremlin” by Rick Carson

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Subtitle: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way

The first time I got laid off, back in 1998, we were given day passes to a career center. I dutifully leafed through binders of possible jobs, until a slim book caught my eye. I sat and read all of the first edition of Taming Your Gremlin, enticed by the playful illustrations and clear writing. “Simply noticing” and “playing with options” were exactly the tools I needed.

I ran across it again later and got my own copy, eventually joined by the expanded edition published in 2003. I’ve recommended it a lot since then.

I dug it out recently because I was writing about being nice, and I remembered the “nice person act” in this book. It turns out to be called the “pleasant person act,” but it’s still relevant. We mask our essential selves by acting the way we think we should.

The gremlin is the Inner Critic, the one who tells us that we are unlovable, unworthy, and need to work on ourselves all the time. We can’t get rid of it, but we can tame it by simply noticing, playing with options, and being in process.

Highly recommended!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck” by Mark Manson

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Subtitle: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

Recommended to me by: a client

I liked the message of the initial chapters, although delivered in a more crass way than I prefer. Rather than avoiding negative experiences and seeking positive experiences, pause and accept what you have and who you are. I agree that thinking that we should be having a more positive experience, and that we could be if only we were doing something better or differently, is a setup for misery.

Instead of trying to avoid problems, try for better problems. I had gotten a sense of this from “Artist’s Way,” that becoming more skilled and successful just means the challenges get bigger. We can seek challenges we enjoy, rather than trying to avoid challenges altogether.

Our attitude toward failure and rejection determines their impact on us. When we step back and look at our deepest values and what we want in our lives, we can weather negative events more easily. Choose what you give energy to, what you “give a fuck about.”

And then, there is a chapter endorsing False Memory Syndrome and saying we should trust ourselves less, which bounced me right out of the book.

Clearly, vulnerable survivors are not the target market for this book. Some of the advice is clearly aimed at young privileged men: stop traveling and having one-night stands so much and settle down in one place, with one woman.

This book reminds me why representation is so important. I’m glad I have the option to read books by people who include my perspective, and the perspectives of other vulnerable people.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Under Plum Lake” by Lionel Davidson

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I wish I could find the post that recommended this book to me strongly enough to put it on hold at the library. When it showed up, it didn’t look like my kind of thing, but it’s short and pulled me through all the way to the end.

It’s a portal fantasy as a vehicle for the author’s messages about spirituality and humanity’s possible future. I can’t even tell if the very advanced society under the ocean is meant to be aspirational, or a cautionary tale. Their science (sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic) is certainly enticing, but their main character Dido is arrogant and callously indifferent to his human visitor’s safety.

There is a brief sentence explaining why they all have white hair and green eyes, but it reads as a coverup for yet another future where the people of color have been erased.

It reminded me a little bit of George MacDonald’s children’s books, but the moral lesson was more ambiguous.

Tygertale posts more of the story and excerpts from an illustrated edition.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Through the Shadowlands” by Julie Rehmeyer

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Subtitle: A Science Writer’s Odyssey into an Illness Science Doesn’t Understand

Julie Rehmeyer chronicles her descent into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and her ultimate ascent into carefully managed recovery. She includes investigative journalism into why Chronic Fatigue and mold sensitivity receive so little credibility and research funding.

She chronicles her relationships as well. She was incredibly fortunate to receive assistance when she needed it, and also incredibly determined to keep surviving and moving forward on her own.

Her mother brought her up as a Christian Scientist, and she herself is a science writer and mathematician. She weaves together her pursuit of medical treatment for her illness along with looking inside for the meaning of the illness and the lessons to be learned. She learns to be in the moment with suffering, and realizes that not all suffering can be solved by trying harder.

With the help of people writing about their experiences on Internet forums, she discovers that extreme mold avoidance and later, careful gradual re-exposure improve her health to a manageable level. She notes that this was her personal experience, and each Chronic Fatigue sufferer responds differently to different possible causes and treatments.

Beautifully written, even the excruciating parts. Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Journey to the Dark Goddess” by Jane Meredith

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Subtitle: How to Return to Your Soul

Recommended to me by: Mereth

Jane Meredith weaves together research and interpretation about three myths of descent into the underworld with her own experiences of unintentional and intentional descents. The book is divided into sections on Preparation, Descending, In the Underworld, and Coming Back Out.

The three myths are: Inanna as she descends to her sister’s realm, Persephone as she is taken to the underworld and marries there, and Psyche who is sent to the underworld by Aphrodite as part of a series of tasks to win the right to partner with Eros. These myths are maps of what we might encounter in our own descents – times when everything comes apart through illness, loss, or other transformations.

Jane Meredith strongly advocates for descending consciously with rituals, rather than being dragged into descents without preparation or warning. She makes the case that our lives ebb and flow the way the moon does, and contraction is just as valid as expansion. She also advocates for making maps of our journeys, recording our experiences for the benefit of ourselves and others.

I participated in a Descent of Inanna ritual twenty years ago, and still have the plaster mask I made then. I’ve encountered plenty of descents in my life as well. I wanted the book to tell me how to Ascend, how to find that turning point when things start to get better, rather than living in the underworld. She talks about ascending slowly and consciously, integrating new information. Mirroring the descent of Inanna where she gives up seven aspects of her power and self, in an Ascent we reclaim what we gave up, possibly in changed form.

My body sensed the return of the sun after the recent total solar eclipse as a turning point. The light does return! Things do get better! I’ll have to pay attention to what I’m reclaiming.

Overall, these suggestions and rituals are about confronting the raw truths of ourselves and our lives. Descent is about surrendering everything. Choosing to descend is about reclaiming our power to live fully, even in the hardest times.

Highly recommended as a guide for moving consciously through hard times.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“8” by Amy Fusselman

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Recommended to me by: a client

This is a book about healing, rather than a book about trauma.

Amy Fusselman layers incidents with “her pedophile” among meditations about the nature of time, parenting, relationships, healing, bodywork, therapy, New York City cab rides, and writing in a coffee shop when celebrities walk by. She loops among the topics gracefully, like the figure skater she was as a girl.

Recommended for one person’s perspective on the effects of childhood sexual abuse, putting it in its (admittedly important) place among the rest of the events in a life. Recommended for touching on the topic of abuse forthrightly, and then going on to something else, rather than sinking into it more and more deeply. This is how healing works.

Available at Powell’s Books.