Educated: a memoir (review)

Educated: a memoir
Tara Westover
Random House (2018)

I used to try to get my high school students (at least once a year and usually when reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) to think about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Most seemed to think that they were receiving an education in their daily classes. My contention was that they were getting their schooling. How they interacted and applied the ideas they learned, what they did with the information–now that was education. Too many people stop at schooling and call it education. And to be successful, I’m pretty certain you need both.

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is as good as every review you might have read since its publication in February. The book was my book club’s December pick and while it made for great discussion I couldn’t help but wish that it was required reading for every young person. Because only after she got her schooling did Tara become educated–in knowledge and understanding, sure. But also in love and life and what it means to persevere.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father dealt scrap metal, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. An older brother called Shawn in the book (many first names were changed according to an introductory note) physically and verbally abused both of his sisters. Tara’s ‘homeschooling’ consisted of learning to read and basic arithmetic, but by the time she was seven or eight, she was working in the scrap yard or helping her mother bottle tinctures. Her father’s fear that government agents were always ready to strike meant that Tara had a to-go bag under her bed, ready to flee to the hills. She had nightmares about the Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge incident. Tara Westover was sometimes hungry. She was often lonely.

At an older brother’s urging, Tara began preparing her escape at age sixteen–her goal, at first, was simply to teach herself the content she would encounter on the ACT. After two tries, her scores were college ready and she was accepted to Brigham Young University.

She left. And to say her adjustment was difficult is an understatement.

Tara lived in an off campus with two other girls and had little idea that people didn’t leave rotting food and trash on the counters with dirty dishes; that people showered regularly; that when they did shower, they used soap. She also had huge gaps in her understanding of the world and its history. Thinking she would ask questions, joining class discussion like the other students, Tara asked a professor what the word ‘holocaust’ meant on a lecture slide. The silence in the lecture hall, as they say, was deafening. But seventeen-year-old Tara had never heard of the Jewish holocaust.

Tara Westover not only succeeded at BYU–she went on to earn her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. She is an articulate and intelligent and amazing woman (just check out the interview links below). But always, always in those first years away from the mountain, she was dogged by a feeling that she was undeserving. That she was fraud. A cloud of shame shadowed every success.

How does one come to terms with a past like that? By making peace? Or cutting ties to a destructive family? How does a young person learn her place the world when she doesn’t know basic life skills, let alone
history? Spoiler alert (but not really!): the secret is in education.


Check out these interview links with Tara Westover:

Fresh Air (38 min.) audio
AfterWord (1 hour) video

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Random House

when breath becomes airSo much has been written about Paul Kalanithi’s meditation on living and dying When Breath Becomes Air–reviews in every newspaper and magazine, a Super Soul short by Oprah, NPR interviews, a TED talk. What more could I possibly add?

Not much.

Kalanithi does with words what he did as a surgeon–takes two pieces seemingly torn apart and stitches them seamlessly together. As a surgeon he removed brain tumors and fixed broken spines, then sewed muscle to muscle and skin to skin so that the patient was once again all of a piece. As a writer he took an idea that frightens many–death–and connected his past and present, bringing the reader to understand that death does not separate us from our lives, but instead merely moves us along a kind of continuum. In her Ted Talk, Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy, recites the poem “Separation” by W. S. Merwin: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color. I can only hope that it may be so for my loved ones.

Strange that I read When Breath Becomes Air only three days into my retirement. Such an event is frought with thoughts of mortality and life’s work and self-worth. I’ve most likely lived, at best, two-thirds of my life already. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that some days that remaining slice of the pie seems terribly small.

I could also say that Kalanithi wasn’t so lucky.

Or I could say he was the luckiest man alive–because Paul Kalanithi experienced a marvelous grace that enabled him to live a good death.

My Big Magic

big magicA few years ago I was cleaning out my file drawers. I use “file” here loosely because the drawers are an odd collection of miscellaneous ephemera: ticket stubs, campground maps, prayer cards, receipts ($12.97 at Meijer, and I saved this?!), and unopened mortgage offers. I’d just slogged my way through some serious upheaval and organizing is my go-to ritual. If I can’t put my life to rights, I can certainly put my papers in order.

At the bottom of one of the drawers I found a folder with a few stories I had written nearly thirty years ago. In another life I’d have been a writer, but I pursued a more practical path instead. I had kids to feed, a mortgage to pay, and ain’t nobody got time for make believe. Part of the fallout of these last hard years was that I had to put off retirement and pay the bills. I was the breadwinner once again–but a heartsick and weary one.

The stories reminded me of what could have been, I was mired in the misery (self-inflicted, mind you) of the wouldas and the shouldas, and I just wanted to forget the dreams. I flipped through the typed pages. Wondered if they should stay or go. And threw them in the trash.

As I did, I remember having some strange sense that those stories could never really be trashed. “They’re out in the universe somewhere–living on in some other dimension. I only set them free.” Maybe I’d done enough to just write them; maybe keeping them wasn’t the point.

So imagine my surprise when I read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic last weekend and she confirmed my intuition. Ideas, says Gilbert, are “an energetic life form … ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will.” Ideas will tap us on the shoulder, knock impatiently on our hearts–waiting, waiting for us to give them welcome. Whenever we create (whether it’s story or quilting or painting or dancing) we embody those ideas and they come to make their home with us.

Now am I sorry I tossed those poor stories out? Of course. I think they know that I did so from a very sad place. But I also think they forgive me. Their brothers and sisters–story sprites!–come sit next to me and whisper sweet nothings in my ear.

And we are all of us happy to be alive.

Love Warrior: review

Love Warrior
Glennon Doyle Melton
Flatiron Books

“The journey is learning that pain, like love, is simply something to surrender to. It’s a holy space we can enter with people only if we promise not to tidy up … the courage to surrender comes from knowing that the love and pain will almost kill us, but not quite.”

love warrioI dragged my feet reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s latest book Love Warrior, even going so far as to skip over the title on my last two book orders because I was “in the mood for fiction”. (Hah! Can you say “ostrich”?!) Even though I’d watched Melton on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Even though I loved her podcast on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons. Even though my very own therapist had recommended it.

Because who wants to read about a marriage that failed and then didn’t when your own can be like a ride on the Blue Streak? But read it I did, and I survived. In fact, after I finished it, I went back and re-read the end, marking up pages that need some more reflection.

Love Warrior is that good.

The first seven chapters bring us to the Big Divide in Melton’s marriage, the thing that made Melton a Warrior. She reveals that she became bulimic when only a tween and struggled with alcohol addiction in college and after until she got sober. The catalyst that brought her twenty-something-year-old self to recovery was a little blue line on a pregnancy test. Not sure what part her boyfriend would play in their future, Melton was certain she would have this baby. A whirlwind engagement and wedding followed and the two played their roles as faithfully as they knew how. Eventually, Melton wrote about the messiness of family and relationships on her popular blog Momastery and also in her first book Carry On, Warrior.

Three kids and a cross country move later the bottom fell out of the world she tried so carefully to create: Melton discovered her husband had a series of affairs throughout their entire marriage. She was done. It was over. There are no do-overs in the face of such betrayal.

And so what started as Melton’s own personal quest for wholeness without her husband became the very glue that patched them back together*. Melton is brutally honest, insistent. Women have for too long separated themselves from their breath, their bodies, their Life’s Work; we end up an empty shell that serves neither our families or our own happiness. Coming back into our own skin and embracing even our pain is the only way to save ourselves.

And when she recognizes the Grace that had been extended to her, she realizes it is her great privilege to extend it to her husband.

Glennon Doyle Melton has given women committed to faith and family a much-needed treatise for a new kind of feminism, one with fewer ties to politics and more to the spiritual.

“Love, Pain, Life: I am not afraid. I was born to do this,” writes Melton on the final page. Them’s fightin’ words, Love Warriors.


* The  after-afterword to Melton’s story is one about which, I’m sure, she’ll write. You can find it on her August 1st blog post, and even more of her story on her Facebook page.

It was me all along (review)

It Was Me All Along (Blogging for Books)
Andie Mitchell
Clarkson Potter

Food.

It’s memories of family–weekday meals of tuna casserole or Sundays at Grandma’s with her special golumpki. It’s theIt was me all along comfort of ice cream after a bad break-up or chocolate chip cookies after an trying day at work. Food is the Saturday night entertainment of a new restaurant, the brats and beer at a baseball game. It’s Christmas and Easter and the dinner you request Mom make for your birthday  every year.

For those of us in the U.S. it’s rarely just a means of sustenance.

Andie Mitchell recounts how the emotional weight food carries played out in her own life. For Andie food was synonymous with family and happiness until her father started drinking heavily when she was seven. After his death food lost its place in her family life … but she still craved the taste of love and comfort and home. She found herself eating compulsively. Boxes of Little Debbies in a sitting. Cartons of ice cream. Super-sized drive-thru snacks. Like so many of us she also found herself on an unpredictable diet mood swing–watching and counting calories one minute, drowning her sorrows in Oreos the next.

Her story of recovery is one we know well, but usually fail to follow: moderation, exercise, portion control. That Andie lost weight after she followed her passion into a satisfying career should surprise no one. She found that when she was truly Herself, relationships, as well as her clothes, no longer fit.

Andie’s story resonated with me. I’ve gained and lost the same twenty pounds for a decade now. I admire anyone like Andie who has the discipline to lose half their body weight. Her relationship with food is more balanced now.

But what will stick with me after reading this weight loss memoir is the title. It is me all along.

Because in the end, a few pounds more or less is not going to be the deciding factor when it comes to happiness or contentment. In the end, all we’ve got is ourselves–and loving the little girl inside might just be more important than whether or not the woman on the outside is a size 4 … or a 14.