Category Archives: Non-Fiction

‘Quilts and Health’ by Marsha MacDowell, Clare Luz, and Beth Donaldson


“I make my quilts thick to keep my family warm. I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.”
Prairie Woman, 1870

My friend Nandy is an artist, not a quilter like I am, but when she noticed this book somewhere, she very kindly sent me one! It was a wonderful gift. This incredible book speaks to the healing power of quilts and quilt making and to the deep connection that exists between art and health. I’ve taken time to read it slowly and carefully, admiring the many beautiful photos of quilts and descriptions of amazing quilt projects. If there is a quilter in your life, take note.

This book is a compilation of pictures and stories and presents evidence and many varied poignant testimonies to the fact that having and giving and making and using and just being around quilts is healing. Quilting involves creativity and math and puzzles and precision and clever use of colour and pattern, but also involves patience with many countless hours of sewing and handwork. Quilters do find all of that therapeutic. There are many types of quilts and endless techniques that quilters learn and use. But this is not a how-to-quilt book. It researches and celebrates the connection between quilts and health. Name an illness, medical condition, or disease and you will find quilt making associated with it.

The book covers charity quilting, the joy of quilting in groups, quilting for specific causes, the healing power of sewing that quilters experience after or during treatment for an illness, but also the tremendous comfort in receiving a quilt as a gift and feeling the love that went into each and every stitch. “Those who sleep under a quilt, sleep under a blanket of love.”

I was delighted when my friend Alice sent me this picture of a quilt hanging on the wall which she noticed on a walk-about at Toronto General Hospital. I wasn’t delighted that she had to be admitted there, and she is fine now, but it was a great example of how quilts are often found in places of healing and medical care. The inscription reads, “Thank you to the wonderful nurses of 6B West, Head and Neck Unit, TGH.”

“Common themes–or threads if you will–throughout this book have been the critical role that beauty, creative expression, and a sense of worth, belonging, purpose and community can play in achieving optimal health and quality of life.”

‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ by J.D. Vance

Narrated by the author this memoir is a heartfelt journey of a man through the labyrinth of his own life and culture. It reminded me a little of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. What a child grows up with is intrinsic and woven through their personality and psyche. To the child it just is. But when as an adult that person gains a curiosity to look back and step back far enough to gain an objective understanding of the effects those growing years had on them, it is powerful indeed. Vance grew up as a “hillbilly”: a poor white person from the American south. But I loved what he says about that moniker: “Americans call them ‘hillbillies, white trash, rednecks’ but I call them ‘neighbours, friends, family.'”

Vance very poignantly and honestly tells his own story of growing up in white working class culture in the Appalachia region, and in so doing, describes a culture marked by economic decay, poor self-esteem, and lack of agency. He loves his family deeply, but was also scarred in many ways by them and had to wake up to this reality to begin to understand his own tendencies and motivations. He had good people in his life who fiercely protected him and loved him, like his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw– very vivid and colourful characters! Would I ever have loved to meet them! “If you harm that boy you will answer to the barrel of my gun!” says Mamaw to her own daughter about her grandson J.D. It made me think of the sitcom we grew up with called Beverly Hillbillies.

Vance doesn’t criticise, he analyses. Hard working Scots/Irish immigrants came for the American dream which became overshadowed by abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma. How that happened is complicated, and Vance very ably articulates his chaotic family story with humour and insight.

I’m getting to this book a bit late, but when it came out it was hugely instructive in understanding the populism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which sped it to the top of the bestseller list at the time. I do recommend listening to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself. Ron Howard has created a movie adaptation with a star-studded cast, coming out soon on Netflix.

‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed’ by Lori Gottlieb

“We grow in connection with others.”

Lori Gottlieb is an American psychotherapist who writes the weekly ‘Dear Therapist’ column for The Atlantic magazine and has been a TV screen writer. I’ve never read a memoir quite like this. It’s very personal about the author of course, but also opens the door to therapy sessions which are usually private and confidential so it felt like being a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ but also I felt like I learned something about how people gain self-understanding. I don’t have much experience with this myself but the few sessions I have had with a naturopath who utilised talk therapy, I was amazed at her skills of perception and intuitiveness in a relatively short amount of conversation time.

The first half of the book hooked me in with Gottlieb’s self-deprecating humour. She is honest and funny and refreshingly unafraid to doubt or question herself. The fact that she needs therapy herself gives the book a ‘real’ feel. Towards the middle I was wondering where all of the seemingly random stories about her clients/patients were going, but hang in there. The second half of the book is where the magic happens, the wisdom and understanding arrives, and there are satisfying outcomes, even in difficult and tragic circumstances. I guess in that way the book mimics a real therapy session. She highlights Viktor Frankl’s emphasis on finding meaning and quotes from his book Man’s Search for Meaning which is a lifetime favourite of mine. She also talks about how love wins. Here’s an excellent interview with Gottlieb which captures her perspective on therapy: click here.

Apparently this kind of view into ‘both sides of the couch’ is also TV material, ABC is already developing a series based on this book.

Here is the author in a TED talk with the title: How changing your story can change your life.

‘How to be an Anti-Racist’ by Ibram X. Kendi and ‘White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism’ by Robin DiAngelo

It’s been a time for reflection and reading about racism. I would like to highlight these two books which I’ve found helpful, one written by a black man and the other by a white woman. Both books support some of the same issues but from different angles. Both underline the idea that anti-racism is the correct term because no one can claim to be non-racist or colour blind.

The most helpful thing I’ve learned recently from Ibram Kendi is that the opposite of racist is not not racist, but antiracist. “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.” Everyone has racial bias and prejudice, it’s not just ‘those other bad people’ who are the problem. “To claim non-racism is to be wearing a mask for racism, everyone is racist, it is not a pejorative slur, it is descriptive, and we have to work against it to identify, describe, and dismantle it.” In the same way that we are products of systems and social constructs that have embedded racism into them, we now need to contribute to the formation of a truly just and equitable society. We can’t leave this up to anyone else, it starts with you and me: these books have helped me think about how to embrace the awkwardness and find the courage to strive to actively interrupt racism and humbly learn how to be an antiracist.

Kendi’s  concept of antiracism reenergises and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in American and points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. He asks us to think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it. In this book, Kendi weaves an electrifying combination of ethics, history, law, and science, bringing it all together with an engaging personal narrative of his own awakening to antiracism.

 

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo explains why white people have a hard time thinking of themselves as racist or even prejudiced and why they get super defensive about it. DiAngelo illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility, an expression she coined in 2011. This term refers to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially. It is characterised by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviours including argumentation and silence. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. Even though this book has had mixed critical reviews, I found it helpful to know how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, how people put up barriers and use avoidance without even realising it, and what we can do to engage more constructively with the issues and with each other.

‘Bolder: Making the Most of our Longer Lives’ by Carl Honoré

“Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Betty Friedan

Upbeat, encouraging, and sensible, Carl Honoré, the author of In Praise of Slow, explores the advantages and disadvantages of growing older. And with a few caveats (like good health and opportunity), the tick marks on the positive side are clearly in the majority. Honoré quickly debunks prevalent myths about aging and warns that agism is really the problem. Criticising ‘age silos’, the author argues in favour of mingling with other age groups as much as possible and realising that although age and poorer health may detract from quality of life, older people also often experience a boost of creativity and vigour in their later years. Experience and perspective can actually be as useful as youthful stamina.

The important thing is a good attitude and of course maintaining all of the things that keep us all looking and feeling better–exercise for body and brain, sense of humour, stress avoidance, healthy food and drink, socialising with friends and family, etc. If you are over sixty, when you look in the mirror don’t hope to see someone who looks younger, hope to see someone who looks heathy and at their best. As Anne Lamott said, “we contain all the ages we have ever been.”  Own those wrinkles–each one tells a story and shows where the smiles have been!

Here is the author in a TED talk on this topic. It’s worth a view if you want a 12 minute summary of the main points of the book:

‘Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life’ by Tish Harrison Warren

Everyone wants a revolution. No one wants to do the dishes”

I’ve always been a lover of the quotidian in life, the humble daily routines and regular chores–they are comforting even if they drive me crazy sometimes–with their “daily-ness.” But if we pay attention, we might see that a whole bunch of ordinary can suddenly result in extraordinary, and a whole bunch of seemingly everyday sorts of days can add up to a remarkable life!

“When suffering is sharp and profound, I expect and believe that God will meet me in its midst. But in the struggles of my average day I somehow feel I have a right to be annoyed.”

Jesus always used everyday examples and objects to teach about spiritual things, and that is what this book does, with chapter headings on things like making the bed, brushing teeth, eating leftovers, and losing keys. I loved how the author turns our eyes to the fact that everyday life can be seen as sacred practice.

This practical theology is perfect for people raising young children who simply don’t have the energy or time to carve out a ‘quiet time.’ Everyday chores and routines can be moments to reflect and remind. It is absolutely vital for everyone, but especially for parents with small children, to see all tasks as worship to God–a God who sees them, and loves them all the time.

‘Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity’ by Peggy Orenstein

Although I did not read Peggy Orenstein’s bestselling book Girls & Sex, about women’s right to pleasure and agency in sexual encounters, I did find this book fascinating. In a media soaked culture and post #MeToo, raising good men may be as hard or harder than protecting young girls. Orenstein believes that most boys want to be good men but there is so much harm in what they encounter in ‘boy culture’ and the media, they receive little guidance.

Even though everyone knows a parent would rather stick a fork in their eye than discuss sex with their children, many parents will have conversations with their girls before their boys. The author covers a broad range of issues (sexual ethics, consent, LGBTQ, racism, dating, the harmful effects of porn, social behaviour around hookups, desire for emotional intimacy, etc.). She includes practical tips for parents about what and how to discuss with their children.

This book also includes never-before collected research because Orenstein made a point of not just talking about boys, but hearing from them. She bears witness to their efforts to free themselves from the trap that culture sets for them. And boys are often also victims of sexual violence and are in need of protection, and more in need of emotional intimacy than some might think. Boy culture and toxic masculinity can be brutal and society doesn’t often give boys much permission or space to discuss their interior lives.

The conversation is frank and candid in this book, because it needs to be, but if you listen to the audio version, you might not want your younger kids in the car with you. This is an important book and contrary to what some parents believe about teens and sex, giving them information and being prepared to open up dialogue about sex, does not cause them to engage in it earlier or more. In fact, studies have proven that equipping teens, keeps them safer and less likely to be involved sooner.

 

‘Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age’ by Mary Pipher

“To be happy at this junction, we cannot just settle for being a diminished version of our younger selves. We must change the ways we think and behave. This book focuses on the attitudes and skills we need in order to let go of the past, embrace the new, cope with loss, and experience wisdom, authenticity, and bliss.”

Author, scholar, and cultural therapist Mary Pipher has written 10 books on a variety of topics, all very successful and well respected. I read some of her books years ago, and am so happy to have found this, her latest. As a cultural anthropologist and clinical psychologist who specialises in developmental psychology and trauma, one of her most notable books was Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls in 1994 which was fantastic. Growing older is not for sissies we sometimes quip, because it can be a stage that is marked by ill health or loss. But Pipher looks positively at a stage in life where we can flourish and expand on the life identity we have already built.

It’s a hopeful, helpful book, and in her foreword she says men have enjoyed it as well (even jokingly suggesting to her that she should write another entitled Men Going South). 🙂 Her conclusion, after exploring every imaginable issue at this juncture, is to experience bliss (however simple), embrace everything (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant), and sense how big life is–intense, joyful, playful, complicated, and beautiful. She quotes Joan Baez who said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Pipher adds, “It may or may not help the world, but it always helps us.”

Informal polls of my peeps reveal that actually we like ourselves and know ourselves better now than when we did in our 20’s and 30’s. At this stage in the river we have more freedom, we tend to be less hard on ourselves, and more able to let things go. It feels really good, as long as health and loss issues do not tip the canoe (or a pandemic throws a monkey wrench into everything). This book seeks to help navigate the inevitable swerves and rapids with wisdom, joy, and grace. The first part of the book considers the challenges of aging (ageism, lookism, caregiving, loss, loneliness). The second part looks at understanding ourselves (skillful choices, community building, managing narratives, gratitude). The third part focuses on the importance of relationships.

‘How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss’ edited by Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-Demoor


Guest Post by Miriam Booy

I didn’t know miscarriage was so common until I experienced it, twice within 7 months. I didn’t know infertility was so common until several friends experienced it, and told me their stories. The truth about pain and loss is that we don’t really understand it until we go through it or someone close to us does. Then we start the search for similar stories to us in an attempt to know we are not the only ones or help another person through the same experience.

“How to expect what you’re not expecting” is a collection of personal stories of unexpected loss including miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility, premature delivery and giving up children for adoption. The writers are skilled and share their emotional journeys with poetic liberties that strive to capture the experiences they have been through. When I read I tend to ‘skim for the story’ so it was good for me to slow down and appreciate the beautiful descriptive language.

A common theme in each of the stories is that loss never really leaves you. Instead, you learn to live with it as you find new hope and joy. The last sentence of the book seems to capture it well “We hold because we grieve. We grieve because we love. And we wait in the possibility of love without grief. We wait as best we can.”

Thanks to Lisa Martin-Demoor, my cousin, for her skilled writing, editing and vision for this book and my sister for sending it to me. Lisa writes “It is not only the beauty of the world that saves us. If we let it, something else can save us too–our responsibility for this world, for our pain and each other’s.”

‘Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle’ by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Top-notch advice from two sisters for women, although I think anyone could benefit from reading this. They explain why women experience stress differently from men. The book is about navigating stress, managing both external stressors as well as the internal effects of stress on the body.

This is a hugely important science-based approach to dealing with stress for women at any age or stage. It gives simple and sensible strategies towards feeling ‘enough’ and finding wellness. I found it refreshing and wise. The sisters even talk about gaslighting which also happens to be a topic in a recently released Dixie Chicks song…(obviously the singers are still not ‘ready to make nice’ but are highlighting and naming another important issue in pop culture. I’d not heard the term before, but encountered it twice in the same week. That’s how these things go.)

What I really liked about this book was the emphasis on the fact that we don’t have to wait for the world to change before we can begin to heal ourselves. And also, needing help and asking for help is normal and necessary, and is NOT a sign of weakness, but of strength.