Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why We Read Romance Novels

Since starting this blog, I have been the lucky target of countless questions and puzzled remarks about why I have chosen to immerse myself in this popular, yet exceedingly misunderstood, genre of literature. Do I really believe these books are an accurate portrayal of love? What is my own romantic life like? Do I read because I long for a different family? A new career? A different life? The questions just keep on coming. And I love the questions. All of them. Because it means that people are reading. And thinking. So I decided to think too. 

I have offered a variety of reasons for my undying love of romance novels. The escape. The entertainment. The happy ending. But in the face of this onslaught of questions about what exactly it is that keeps me coming back for more, I needed to dig a little deeper. To understand what it really is about these books that keeps us constantly entertained and endlessly happy. 

And when I really stopped to think about these questions, something jumped out at me. These questions all made an assumption. That I read romance novels because I am not happy. Because I want to be different. To have something different. To be someone different. And nothing could be further from the truth. Because I am happy. I don’t want something different. I just want to be me. And live this life

In my quest for a deeper understanding of why people read romance novels, I stumbled across an article on about romance novels. The article was based on an essay from Britain’s Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care that said, among other things, that romance novels portray an idealized version of love, and that women may not be able to distinguish fact from fiction, so much so that women who read romance novels tend to suspend reality in their real relationships. No offense to the Journal, but I think that is just plain wrong. Because the women I know? They want real love. Not ideal love. And they want to be happy. And healthy. And fulfilled. And most of all, they want to be themselves. 

And these books. These delightful, thrilling and insightful books teach women that being yourself - whatever you choose to be - is something to be praised. Celebrated. Aspired to. 

Allow me to explain.

I have written extensively about 
the very first romance novel I ever read, The Stanislaski Sisters, followed shortly (read: the same day) by the sequel, The Stanislaski Brothers. There are four lead women featured in the pages of these books. Natasha, a stubborn Ukrainian beauty who owns and runs a toy store in a small West Virginia town. Her sister Rachel, a fiery New York City public defender. Sydney, an heiress who runs her family's company. Bess, a red-headed soap opera writer. Four books from the same series. Four different women. Different looks. Different jobs. Different cities. Different passions. What they all have in common? They find a great love. They have to work through hurdles to make that love work. And ultimately, finally, they settle in for the wild ride. And the happy ending. 

Love. Hard Work. Marriage. Family. Pretty good lessons if you ask me. 

My theory? When we read these books, we read because we can identify with the characters. Because the women in the books express characteristics that we both admire and aspire to have. And (sorry ABC News) we don't suspend reality in our relationships because we read romance novels. And we are certainly able to distinguish fact from fiction. We read because we enjoy the books. And the messages. And because maybe, just maybe, there is something to be learned from the pages of our favorites.

In an effort to prove my theory, I polled some romance novel 
aficionados (aka my sisters) about their favorite romance novel characters, and the reasons for their choices. 

First up, Sister K. Her choice? Parker from
Happy Ever After, the final book in Nora Roberts' Brides Quartet. Her reasons? Because Parker is a hard worker with a great family, and a beautiful home. In K's own words, "Parker just seems great." K and Parker have a lot in common. K is also a hard worker. One of the hardest I know. She is doing an admirable, enviable job of balancing her job and her new baby. And she has a wonderful family - both the family she was born into and the family she is making for herself with her amazing husband and baby girl. And recently, she and her husband bought their own dream home. And it is beautiful. I would say that she admires Parker because the qualities that Parker has are ones that K herself possesses. She sees pieces of herself there. She sees that she can have it all - job, family, and home. And she can, and does, excel at all of them. No need to suspend reality, because her reality is simply divine.

Next, Sister L. Her choice? Anna Spinelli from
Sea Swept, the first book in Nora Roberts' Quinn Brothers Quartet. Her reasons? Because Anna is both old fashioned and daring; fiercely protective with a strong sense of justice. Now L may not be old fashioned, but the other qualities certainly hit the mark. Daring? What else could you possibly call a girl who made the decision, completely on her own, to leave home at the age of 14 to attend high school in a different state? And who, upon arriving at said high school, excelled spectacularly. Fiercely protective? Definitely. In her quiet way, L is the loudest champion for the ones she loves. She is happy when we are happy. She hurts when we hurt. She is our strongest ally, and most loyal friend. She is devoted to her brand new husband, and he to her. She is watching her most precious dreams come true before her very eyes. And so are we. Proudly. Strong sense of justice? Certainly. Just ask her how she defines the word "annoying." L's favorite character is Anna because so many of the best parts of Anna lay within L. No need to believe in an idealized version of love because she lives the real thing each and every day.

My point in this long ramble is to say that women who read romance novels don't read them simply because they are gripping love stories. We read them because they are 
endlessly entertaining and often thought-provoking. Because the characters are raw and real. Because they showcase women - and couples - who remind us of ourselves. 

Each of the characters currently populating my bookshelves has her own unique story, and so do we. Lucky for us, we get to read those stories, while living our own beautiful and vivid realities. And I would say that's the best of both worlds. Wouldn't you?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Anatomy of a Bad Run

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a phenomenon both familiar to runners, and equally elusive. The Good Run. The event that occurs so infrequently it always takes the runner by surprise, but that is so transcendental, it led me to compose an entire blog post in my head. Today, I write about its evil counterpart. Its sinister twin. The Bad Run. Turns out, it also led me to compose an entire blog post in my head. But one with a decidedly different tone. See, I am training for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. Running a distance race has always been a goal of mine. After a few fits and starts over these last 2 years, it seems that I will finally accomplish this goal on May 6, 2012. Just six short weeks from now. Training requires a great deal of time and commitment, and lots and lots of runs. Plenty of time to experience both The Good Run and The Bad Run. Truth be told, there is really nothing in between. You runners will understand. Yesterday I experienced the latter, and here, for your reading pleasure, is what I wrote in my head.

9 AM. Alarm rings. Exhausted. 6 miles today. It might as well be 600. It seems equally insurmountable. I consider turning off my alarm and falling like a stone back into the deep sleep out of which I was just yanked. I very nearly do just that. Until I hear The Voice. And it says: No. Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

So I do. Begrudgingly. I find running clothes. Fill my water bottle. Get my iPod. and I'm out the door. I resent every single step to the park. I see other runners on their way back from the park, having already finished their long runs of the day. Jealousy burns. With each block I conjure up excuses to put the run off, just a little while longer. I should get a manicure first. I need a haircut. I need breakfast. Maybe it would be better with coffee. No. Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

So I make it to the park. Down the 72nd street hill I go. To my familiar starting line. The first mile is uphill. Ugh. iPod on. Timer starts. Off I go. I feel like I weigh 400 pounds. I am fighting for every step. For every breath. What is that twinge in my leg? Is it shin splints? A stress fracture? Achilles Tendonitis? Maybe I should stop. It would be better not to aggravate such dire injuries. Better take the week off and start again next Sunday. Yes, I should definitely stop. I'm stopping. No. Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

Mile 2. I really hate this song. Why would I put such a stupid song on my running playlist? How can I be expected to keep running when such hateful music is blasting in my ears? Will this song ever be over? This is the longest 3 minutes of my life. My iPod is inaccessible right now, or I would just skip this one. Obviously I should stop for a second to change the song. I would feel much better. That's what I'll do. Stop. No. Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

Mile 3. 102nd Street Transverse. Harlem Hill looms in the distance. Mount Everest, as far as I'm concerned.  Seriously, am I really only at 102nd street? I've definitely been running for at least an hour. Check the timer. It's only been 20 minutes. The transverse beckons me. Urges me to hang a right. To take the cut-off that will turn 6 miles into 5. And really, whats the difference between 5 and 6? I'll just get up tomorrow morning and run the extra mile. Yes, I should definitely take the transverse. Save Mount Everest for a better run. A Good Run. That's what I'll do. No. Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

Mile 4. I made it up Harlem Hill. Barely. Luckily that's it for the big hills. The rest of this run will be easier. What's that up ahead? Crap. I forgot about the Lasker Pool hill. Up I go. Burning calfs. Burning lungs. A girl passes me on the hill. Happily bouncing her way up this monstrosity. Barely sweating. Smiling even. I hate her instantly. Passionately. Is that a headache coming on? Maybe it's heatstroke. Or dehydration. That's definitely it. I'm dehydrated. I should stop. Walk the rest of the way. At least walk up this insufferable hill. No. Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

Mile 5. Central Park Boathouse. Get stuck behind some tourists meandering their way through the park. Get  angry. Don't they understand I'm at war here? Get out of my way. 72nd Street Transverse up ahead. The landmark that signals the end of my weekday runs. It looms invitingly in the distance. Practically begging me pay it a visit. Last chance to turn 6 miles into 5. This time I'm doing it for sure. My feet are killing me. My legs feel like lead. I can't go one more mile. I start to make the right turn. And there it is again. The Voice. No. Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

So I bid the transverse a sad farewell. I keep heading straight. Around the bottom of the park. 

Mile 6. Columbus Circle.  Last half mile is all uphill. How could I have planned a route where the last half mile is all uphill? What could I possibly have been thinking? Seriously, I can't run another step. Everything hurts. Maybe this running thing isn't for me. Who needs long distance races anyway? I hate exercising. I hate running. I. Hate. Running. I'm dropping out of the race. I'm never doing this again. I'm....

Finished. 6 miles. 

That wasn't really so bad.

Six weeks until May 6th. Get moving.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I am Outraged

I almost didn’t publish this post. Very nearly just left it in my drafts folder. Felt it wasn’t suitable for my audience. Because I write about romance novels. And love. And family. Happy things. Because I am a happy person. An optimistic sort. But not today. Today, I am not happy. I said before that I am not very political. And I’m not. But when something happens that shakes you to your core, that flies in the face of everything you believe in, I feel strongly that it is our duty to speak out. To whatever audience we have - however small. And you are my audience. So I write. I am drawn to the keyboard to empty my head and order my thoughts. I write.

I am outraged. It has been brewing for some time now, and today it spilled over. Simply bubbled up. Raw, unabating fury. Frustration. Helplessness. We are in an election cycle in this country right now. A tradition every fourth year marked by stunning oratory and divisive rhetoric. And never in my memory has the rhetoric been quite so divisive as it has in recent weeks. I can hardly turn around without being unwittingly immersed in the candidates’ issue of choice. And for reasons passing understanding, the focus during this interminable election cycle remains on Womens Issues. Abortion. Contraception. The Right to Choose.

It is the height of hypocrisy that these men, who can neither carry a child nor take The Pill, seem perfectly content to legislate the thoughts, habits and actions of the ones who can. But this is nothing new. Yes, I am frustrated each and every time these issues arise in the political arena. But I am not surprised. Never surprised.

The source of my fury - the catalyst for my outrage - was a piece of legislation passed by the Idaho State Senate yesterday. One of many perverse attempts by the various state legislatures to curtail the rights of women. Over their bodies. Over their minds. The legislation requires women to have an ultrasound before allowing them to get an abortion. It is a bill similar to laws already in place in 31 other states regarding ultrasounds before abortion. It was not the subject of the law that sparked my outrage, but rather the debate that took place before the bill was passed.

Opponents of the law raised the issue during debate that the law contains no exception for medical emergencies, or special circumstances, such as pregnancies arising from rape or incest. In response, the assistant majority leader of the Idaho Senate suggested that such an exception would be dangerous because women who seek abortion might use rape as an excuse to obtain the procedure where there was actually no rape. Or that women might not be able to ascertain the difference between rape and consensual sex. He later retracted his statements. Said they were misunderstood. But they are out there. And I am outraged.

But this is just one example of the terrifyingly bold effort to restrict womens access to affordable and safe health care.  8 states currently restrict coverage of abortion in private insurance plans. 46 states allow individual health care providers to refuse to provide abortions. 19 states mandate pre-abortion counseling. 26 states have a mandatory waiting period. All of these intrusive laws lay between a woman and her doctor. Making the assumption that women are too naive, or too emotional, to have considered their options and made an effort to understand this frightening and agonizing decision. Nonsense.

I am embarrassed these days to be an American. To hail from a country that’s motto is the “Land of the Free.” I am embarrassed because the Utah governor recently signed a law mandating a 72 hour waiting period. Because in Texas and Virginia a woman now has to have an extraordinarily intrusive ultrasound and listen to her doctor describe what he sees on the screen before she can have an abortion. Because Pennsylvania just proposed a similar law. Because a female state senator from Arizona wants to pass a law requiring a woman to view footage of someone else’s abortion before she can have one of her own. Because the Georgia state senate recently debated a law that would require a woman to continue to carry a stillborn fetus until she goes into “natural labor.” Because Rush Limbaugh called a female law student a “slut” for demanding access to contraception. And still, he has a job. Because Rick Santorum, a candidate for President of the United States, opposes pre-natal testing because it might encourage abortions. And still, he wins primaries.

The rest of the world thinks that we have lost our collective minds. And we have. Yet the anti-choice rhetoric carries on. And there is no end in sight.

During a recent interview, Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee said, “it’s time for women to stop being politely angry.” Yes it is. It is time to be furious. Livid. To scream at the top of our lungs. Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Green Party, Communist Party, Black, White. These are not the labels that matter. Because we are women. We are Sisters, Wives, Daughters, and Mothers. And it is time for us to speak with one voice. To say that this debate is not about life, or freedom of religion. It is about control. Control over our decisions, our bodies, our relationships, and our minds. Control that is being slowly wrested from our grips. And it is time to say no. No. It is unacceptable. We won’t permit it. Out loud.

I am outraged. But not silent. Not anymore.

Monday, March 19, 2012

How We Read

It has been happening frequently since I started writing this blog. Friends and family sending me little snippets from newspapers and magazines that they think I might find interesting. It happened just this morning in fact. A co-worker of mine who has become a good friend and frequent blog reader forwarded me an article from the New York Times Book Review called “The Way We Read Now.” The article discusses the ubiquitous new mediums on which we consume the written word. On smartphones, e-readers, tablets, and the like.

The argument over the best way to read has become extraordinarily polarizing as of late. Proponents of the e-reader insist that tangible books are out of fashion and the back-lit tablet is too hard on the eyes for long-term reading. Fans of the tablet insist that the e-reader is too simplistic - because of course we need to be able to listen to music, watch a movie, send e-mails, and surf the web while we read. And most everyone, it seems, agrees that actual books - the ones we see on our bookshelves and hold in our hands - are going out of style.

And it makes me a little sad. As I have written before, my most important milestones are marked by the books I read. Real books. Tangible ones. First day of college. My first grown-up apartment. Getting married. First job. Deaths. Births. Life. It makes me sad to think that my own kids might experience these most pivotal milestones with e-readers and tablets - rather than dogeared pages - in tow. And if that is, in fact, the case, will they look back and remember the events clearly? Or will the whole experience be viewed through the haze of blue light emanating from their device of choice?

It’s not that I don’t understand e-books. There is something to be said for having hundreds of books, and the ability to order more with the press of a button, at your fingertips. My shoulders - aching from years of carrying around bags full of romance novels -  would probably appreciate the break. About a year ago, my wonderful husband actually downloaded a file that contained every single book that Nora Roberts has ever written. He loaded them onto a iPad for me, which I carried around for a few weeks. Amazing as it was to have all of her books at my immediate disposal, I could never quite master the art of reading off a piece of electronic equipment. It wasn’t long before my real books started sneaking their way back into my bag.

I still carry around the iPad. And I love it. But I don’t read books on it. Instead, my iPad and my books have become fast friends in the center pocket of my favorite bag.

There is something else to the “e-book” vs. “actual book” argument, though, that I rarely hear addressed. I wrote awhile back about one of my favorite commuting activities - checking out the book selection of my fellow subway riders. What I didn’t mention then is that this honored pastime is growing more and more difficult with each passing day. More often than not my subways are buses are filled commuters reading books under the Kindle’s veil of anonymity.

And this makes me sad too. While I will rarely join a book club for reasons far too complex to discuss right now, I love to see what people are reading. If they are reading something new to me, I sometimes copy down the title to add to my collection. If they are reading something I have read, I wonder if their opinion will match mine. Occasionally I have hovered over a Kindle owner’s shoulder, trying my very best to catch a glimpse of the book title that hovers at the top of the e-book. But more often than not, my efforts are met with a searing look from the owner, wondering why I am committing this gross violation of her personal space. Message received.

I am sure that the accessibility of e-books have created readers out of people that might otherwise never have discovered the power of the written word. But still I wonder. I wonder if e-books are laying the foundation for a generation of kids who never touch an actual book. Who never feel the thrill of opening a shiny new cover to reveal the story inside. Who never experience the sweet sorrow of closing a book upon completion and laying it on a shelf to be read again on some future date. Who grow up choosing a book from a list of files, rather than from the organized chaos of a positively brimming bookshelf.

The New York Times article ends with a poignant quote by Anna Quindlen who once wrote: “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” I would be too.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Dedication

One of my favorite parts of a new book, especially a romance novel, is the dedication. The page where the author uses a few words to recognize someone, or something, important. Sometimes the dedication is clear - “to mom.” But every once and a while the dedication is more cryptic. More mysterious. The author recognizes someone, or many someones, by name, or with a short sentence. Leaving the reader to guess the connection. Is it a family member? A friend? A spouse? An old flame? My romance-novel loving brain practically short-circuits with delight in my frenzy to solve the mystery.

Occasionally my need-to-know propels me to the internet to find out who these people are. The people lucky enough to have their name on the dedication page of a romance novel by Nora Roberts. Or Susan Elizabeth Phillips. An honor more prestigious than a Nobel Prize.

I have learned some fascinating nuggets about my favorite authors’ personal lives this way. Perhaps the most interesting of all is that they are not that much different than I am. Yes, they are famous, but they are people. They have families. Husbands. Children. Sons and daughters-in-law. Grandchildren. Parents. Siblings. The people who make the writing - and the living - a great adventure.

This is comforting to me because, see, I am writing a book [she says with trepidation]. There. I said it out loud. It might just be a few pages of rough dialogue. There might be an ending, and not yet a beginning. But my first blank page is no longer blank. I am writing a book.

As I get started on this project that has been simmering on my brain’s back burner for what seems like forever, I have spent some time thinking about who I would dedicate my first book to. It’s a more complicated project than you might think. Because it’s not just the who. It’s the why. And the how. Because to write about relationships, you have to understand and internalize your own relationships. To appreciate the gifts given to you by the people who populate your own life.

I have also been thinking a lot lately about family. What it is, what it means, and how it shapes us. Because really, family is our first true relationship. The basis for who we are. Who we become. The foundation on which all of our future relationships are built. It is not an accident that so many writers dedicate their first books to their family.

I am no different. In a very real way, my words belong to my family. My parents taught me my first words. My sisters helped me hone those words into cogent thought. And the people who came later - my niece, my husband - helped me understand the depth and importance words can have. How words make up my deepest thoughts and feelings. Because writing is how I communicate. How I express. How I interact. How I love.

I don’t yet have a completed book I can dedicate to these most important people. Though I hope to one day. But I have this blog. And these words. To honor. To love. To thank.

To Mom and Dad. For Courage. Resilience. Strength. Love. Laughter. For these gifts you have given me. Given all 3 of us. For encouraging us to be ourselves. To be different. To embrace our quirks. To forge our own paths. You are our very best models of a meaningful life. You taught us how to live with purpose. How to share our lives with another. How to love truly. deeply. endlessly. Simply put, you made us. Us three. We may be spread over two different states, and there is no telling what our lives will bring. But all roads still lead to Pittsburgh. To you. You are our hearts and souls. Always and Forever.

To K & L. Everyone needs a sister. To learn. To play. To fight. To grow. To love. I sometimes think about what life would have been like if we had a brother. And I can’t imagine it. What a streak of blue would have done to our pink, pink world. We are building our own lives now, and are sometimes spread apart. But we are still us. The Brinn girls. Sharing books, recipes, stories. Life. The ties that bind us grow tighter as we grow older. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. You help me make sense of this crazy and mixed-up existence. You are my world; my insides. My sisters. My friends. Forever. Always.

To Baby A. Welcome to the world baby girl. Its a little scary and overwhelming, I know. But it’s also filled with moments of joy - both soaring and quiet. And immeasurable happiness. Like the happiness you have brought to us, just by being you. And joining us. It’s tough to be the first kid - the oldest - I understand. But it’s also divine. You have amazing, insightful parents. Parents who will let you find your own way. Who will let you dream, stumble, pick yourself up, and fly. And a family who loves you. Wildly. Deeply. At first glance. And who can’t wait to see who you will become. Because you are so much already.

To D. You made my life a romance novel. It is my greatest pleasure to write our story together. To live this adventure. This life. This stunning, grand, beautifully imperfect life. It’s the stuff of dreams, my man. How lucky I am that I get to live it. With you. You are my everything; my all. For understanding me better than I understand myself. For laughter. For fun. For the adventure of it all. For happiness beyond measure. And for a future brighter than the sun.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My Escape

In the summer of 2002, I discovered my first used book store. I had been a romance novel devotee for almost two years, but until that summer, had only purchased my books at “regular” bookstores. I was home from college that summer, and missing my new friends terribly. I came home ostensibly to help my parents with their business’s corporate holiday sales (a job at which my mom excelled brilliantly, but that scared this lifelong introvert to no end). But fate had different plans for me.

I had only been home a few weeks and was still adjusting to real life (i.e. not college life) when my grandfather - the sweet and soft-spoken head of our crazy Brinn family - got sick. Very sick. I don’t remember much about the timeline of events surrounding his illness, but I do remember that it was scary, and it threw the summer into chaos. My sisters were at camp, my dad was dividing his time between the store and the hospital, and my mom was needed at the store. All of a sudden, I had nothing to do.

It was during those first few weeks after he got sick that I discovered a tiny little store in my neighborhood called The Book Rack. It was in a back corner of a sprawling shopping center anchored by a grocery store. Almost like it was hiding from all but the most devoted readers. I walked in, and was greeted by an elderly man and woman. Husband and wife - the owners. I asked where the romance section was. The woman just smiled and waved her arm in the general direction of the right-hand side of the store.

Behold. Shelf after shelf of romance novels. They covered 2 entire walls - floor to ceiling - and half of a third. 10 shelves devoted to Nora Roberts alone. I was home. I spent the next 3 hours sitting on the dusty floor, reading. No one bothered me. Not the owners; not even the other customers who had to step over my piles in search of their own heart’s desire. I tried to decide how many I could get away with buying. I think I settled on ten. Ten glorious Nora Roberts books to chase away the fear. The sadness. To help me find order in the chaos.

The woman rang up my selections - half off the cover price - and told me I could return the books when I was done and swap them for new ones. “I’ll definitely be back,” I said. “But I’m keeping these. I’ll come back to buy some more.” Just like that, I had new summer plans.

I spent the next week reading. I read in bed, by the pool, in my parent’s office, and while my car was stopped at red lights. When my unread stack dwindled to two, I paid another visit to that husband and wife and bought five more. Two weeks later I owned every single Nora Roberts book on the shelves of The Book Rack. They didn’t have her entire collection, so I scoured the yellow pages for another source. A woman on a mission.

Next stop, Chamblin Books. 50,000 square feet of used books. They had a cushy chair and ottoman in their romance section, right in front of the Nora Roberts shelves. As if inviting me to sit and stay awhile. To snuggle in to the comforting embrace of the books. To lose myself in these stories with impossibly happy endings. And to be happy. And I did. And I was.

For the rest of the summer, a couple times a week I would make a stop at The Book Rack to see if they had anything new, and then head across the river to Chamblin Books to restock my collection. It was a comforting routine. One that carried me through some dark and lonely days during those long months.

That summer was a roller coaster of emotion. There were days filled with impossible sadness, and times of incredible relief. There were sleepless nights and exhausted days. Through it all was that whisper in the back of our minds. Putting words to a fear we couldn’t yet express out loud. That we didn’t want to believe. That this man - this strong, loving and fiercely loyal center of our incredibly full lives - was ready to take his leave. He was not just a part of our family. He made our family. And it was time to say goodbye.

That summer, my romance novels became an escape. A welcome respite from days of terrifying uncertainty. Haunting the used book stores in my neighborhood in search of the third book in a trilogy became my singular mission. And finding that third book filled me with indescribable happiness.

He died on a Thursday. I remember the book I was holding when we got the news. One I had read before. It was almost like I knew I would need the familiarity. I stayed up late that night. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I didn’t even try. Instead, I kept my light on until the sun started to rise. Reading. Taking comfort in the story. In its happy ending.

I am forever grateful to the used bookstores in Jacksonville, Florida for carrying me through that summer. Sadly, The Book Rack closed a few years later, but we discovered Black Sheep Books to fill the void. And when I went back to college in the fall, I searched out a used bookstore close to campus that I could walk to when I felt like taking a break. Or being alone with my thoughts for awhile.

I never returned a single book that I bought during those frenzied months. They are all still a part of my permanent collection. Sometimes in my rush to get to the story I flip right to chapter 1. But every once in a while, a rubber stamp on the inside cover of the book catches my eye. The Book Rack. Chamblin Books. I run my fingers over the stamp, and I remember. I remember my grandpa. A hardworking family man. A man who simply radiated love for his seven grandchildren. A man who wore to his fitness center every day a Brandeis hat I bought him on my first day of college. We were incredibly lucky to have had him. Incredibly sad to have lost him.

As I make my way through this messy, beautifully imperfect life, I learn to delight in its pleasures. Friends. Family. Lazy Sundays. First snow. The moments, both simple and grand. And most of all, a great romance novel. I like to think he would be proud.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What Inspires You?

I started this blog to write about my love of romance novels, and my love of reading. For as long as I can remember, books have been my inspiration. This morning, though, I was inspired by something else entirely, and this post just tumbled from my head. It’s surprising, isn’t it, when a new source of inspiration strikes, in a most unexpected way? I was surprised this morning. If you’ll allow me, I’ll share it with you.

6:00am. Wide awake for no reason at all. Occasionally this happens to me. Usually I turn over and try to will myself back to sleep. But not today. That never works anyway. My plan was to get up at 7 to run. I’m just a little ahead of schedule. I lace up my running shoes and head out. The city is still quiet as I walk the 3 blocks to the park. Three or four times a week I do this walk, sometimes delighting in it; sometimes dreading it. Because i know what comes at the end of it. My run. Much like writing, running is a fickle creature. Sometimes kind and agreeable. Sometimes cruel and unpleasant. Every day it’s a surprise.

Today, it’s the former. I can tell by the walk. I delight in the quiet rumblings of a street slowly shaking itself awake after a night of slumber. I notice - really notice - the familiar places and faces of the Upper West Side neighborhood that has been my home for some time now. Then I arrive.

6:30am. Central Park. I feel, as I often do when I enter the park for these early morning runs, transported to a different time and place. No longer am I in a big city filled with noise. No longer are my own thoughts crowded with the thoughts of 1.5 million others. For the next hour, I am alone with the morning runners. The hundreds of others making their way around the park loops. Enjoying the solitude of a quiet winter morning.

The first minute is painfully slow. It always is. I am still shaking off the fatigue from my unexpectedly early wake-up. But then something happens. Suddenly, I am not tired anymore. I feel like I could go for miles. I run my favored lower loop, eschewing music - as I often do on these early mornings - in favor of the sounds of sneakers pounding the pavement. Not just my own, but the pounding sneakers of this army of runners.

There is something magical about this early morning tradition. Like I am a part of a special club of people whose names I don’t even know, but whose faces are almost as familiar to me as my own. I see them every morning. Some days I wonder about their lives. Are they are as happy as I am? Do they have someone remarkable waiting at home for them, like I do?

Today I don’t wonder. Today, I am inspired. Inspired by these people. Inspired by my own strength. Inspired by the solitude of the park on a late-winter morning. The sky is gray. The tree branches are bare. I think it has never looked more beautiful. As I round the bottom of the park and start up the east side, I think how lucky I feel. How Central Park in the morning is an oasis in the middle of this loud and crazy city we call home. Later today the tourists will come with their cameras and their noise. But not now. Now it is just me. Me and the runners.

Up ahead is the turn that marks the final stretch of my run. Some mornings it feels like I’ll never get there. Today, it’s coming up fast. I will it to move a little farther away. Just a few extra quiet minutes before I face the day. Alas, I make the turn onto the transverse that leads to home.

Most mornings I go home right away to stretch, have coffee, and watch a few minutes of the morning news. But not today. Today I stay in the park to stretch. To hold on to this unexpected morning as long as I can.

As I leave the park and head towards home, the city is wide awake. What a difference an hour makes. People rushing to work. Kids heading to school. Coffee to drink. Lunch to make. E-mails to return. It’s a weekday on the Upper West Side. Before long I will be joining the rush. But not quite yet.

As a runner, as a writer, I learn to hold onto these moments. Tomorrow’s run might be harder. My thoughts might refuse to form into words on a blank page. But the memory of a morning like this is enough to sustain me. Through the bad runs. Through the terror of the blank page. As I await my next source of inspiration.

What inspires you?