We’re a little less than a week into our plastic-free month and I find myself waffling between two general states of mind: “Wait, do I really need this? Can I make it myself?” and “Screw this, this is ridiculous!” It turns out living without plastic is a lot more difficult than I realized. While I’m surrounded by plastic all day long, I never really noticed how much of my life comes packaged in it until I tried to do without it.
Once I recruited my family to attempt a plastic-free month, we needed to prepare. I started following zero-waste Instagrammers and Facebook pages where I found inspiring ideas, as well as some really beautiful feeds that gave me the same thrill as I get when flipping through a cooking or design magazine.
Full disclosure: I’m a teacher and on vacation for a few more weeks, so I have the time to dedicate to this kind of a project. But I wondered how sustainable this would be once I went back to work. Day one involved a trip to my local grocery store with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I normally do my weekly grocery shopping at Stop and Shop, however, Cronig’s Market, one of the locally owned stores, has a large bulk section that I was going to need. Luckily many others who shop at Cronig’s are way more advanced in this plastic-free endeavor, so the store is already set up with a weigh station at the front door. I brought my own Pyrex containers and at the deli, they cheerfully filled them up with my sliced turkey and cheese. I also purchased a set of 12-ounce mason jars and several muslin sacks for future use. I’m already in the habit of not using many plastic bags when filling my cart with produce, but I took it to a new level, and my fruits and veggies rolled around free. Yet even in a store that has many environmentally conscious shoppers, I was still shocked by how many items had at least some plastic in them. I spent a ridiculous amount on a small container of farmhouse mayonnaise and organic ketchup because they were the only options packaged in glass rather than plastic. I had to skip some items regularly on my shopping list like sandwich bread, yogurt, hummus, and crackers and instead tried out new brands and purchased ingredients to make some staples myself. While my shopping bill was lower than I expected and close to my typical weekly average, I also left unsure what exactly we were eating that week.
Luckily, I enjoy cooking, so part of this adventure was about trying out new recipes and shopping in different stores. Later in the week I bought milk at Morning Glory Farm in returnable glass bottles, something I didn’t even know was an option (though they have a plastic cap). I made my own yogurt (yum, and surprisingly easy), corn tortilla wraps and microwave potato chips (delicious), bread, hummus, and crackers (all good), and toothpaste (yes, toothpaste. Thumbs down from my family, so I broke down a bought a package of Colgate after my daughters begged me.) I used apple cider vinegar in place of conditioner, which worked surprisingly well and didn’t leave me smelling like a Greek salad, as I’d feared. A few lows from this week: battling August traffic in Martha’s Vineyard in order to hit multiple grocery stores, breaking down and buying feta and blue cheese in plastic in plastic, getting the apple cider vinegar in my eyes while conditioning my hair (ouch), using the toothpaste that no one wanted as a facial scrub instead then panicking that my skin would break out because of the peppermint oil.
This project started out as research for a novel, but it’s turned into something else. Everyone in my household is newly aware of all of the plastic in our lives, something I’ve never paid much attention to before. I’m learning about the health risks linked to plastic use, in addition to its impact on the environment. While I’m amazed by some of the people I’ve discovered who manage to fit their monthly or yearly waste into a single jar, I can’t imagine we’ll make it that far. I’ve had to remind myself multiple times that while eliminating plastic is the goal, it’s okay if I can’t do it 100%. Reduction is also a reasonable and worthy goal, better than burning out and scrapping the endeavor altogether. Once the month ends, I think we’ll come away with some long- term changes and new habits—though probably not a new toothpaste.
Next up, attempting plastic-free during the busiest week of the summer on Martha’s Vineyard and while having houseguests and hosting dinner parties.
Most writers will tell you that they research. This is obviously true of nonfiction writers, but it’s also true of novelists. For This Bright Beauty, I learned about bipolar disorder and being a twin. For another (unpublished) manuscript, I researched the opioid epidemic. My current work in progress centers around two women and their families who move to a rural community in Massachusetts. One of the families is living off the grid, in a house without electricity or running water and they’re working to be entirely self-sufficient and zero waste.
Last year my family started composting for the first time, and I began paying more attention to what went into my trash and recycling bins. I started buying a few items in glass rather than plastic, freezing leftover fruit rather than chucking it, and using paper sandwich bags, parchment or wax paper rather than plastic bags, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil. Last Christmas, as Amazon boxes with their excess of cardboard and plastic packaging were delivered to my door on a daily basis for the month of December, I felt a kind of sick guilt about how much ended up in my trash and recycling, not to mention the feeling that somehow, we’d lost sight of the meaning of the holiday.
All of this is to say that recently I’ve been thinking about my family’s carbon footprint. However, I also live on an island where many goods are either expensive or difficult to find, so I frequently shop online. I’ve become an Amazon Prime addict and impulse buyer, craving the one minute thrill of adding items to my cart and clicking buy before I can question whether I really need the item. Living on an island means I shop infrequently and regularly go to my local consignment store for new clothes. Yet when I go off-island, I become a frenzied maniac, stockpiling food from Trader Joe’s and hitting every TJ Max, Target, and Old Navy in sight, as if I live hundreds of miles from civilization rather than a 45 boat-ride from the mainland. When I get my coffee to go, I try to forgo the plastic straw and lid, but I often forget to bring my own mug. I rarely shop at farms, I don’t buy much organic, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I usually lean toward convenience and cost over what is quality or ethically prepared. I’m no prairie girl. Who am I to write about a family being self-sufficient?
The more I wrote, the more questions I had. How do you host a dinner party without using a single piece of plastic? How much time does it actually take to make from scratch all those items that are suddenly off limits because of the packaging? Can a milk carton be composted? What exactly happens to my recyclables? What steps would we need to take to minimize the amount of daily waste we created? How expensive would it be? How time consuming? I realized that in order to write authentically about my characters’ experience living zero waste, I needed to do some research. And some of that research needed to be more than what I could find in a book or online. Part of it needed to be first hand.
So, with the (mostly enthusiastic) support of my family, we decided to do our version of a zero-waste month. Unlike my characters, I’m not living without electricity or running water. We’re not using a compostable outhouse. I have no well from which to haul my water and no woodstove to use as an oven. I don’t even have a garden, other than the half-dead basil plant from Stop and Shop whose leaves have grown small and yellow. We’re attempting a very mild version of zero waste. More specifically, we’re attempting a month without (or with minimal) plastic. Difficult? Probably. Impossible? Stay tuned.
My whole life, I have been a reader. Some of my strongest memories revolve around books—reading Roald Dahl’s The BFG the week I had the chicken pox, my sixth-grade obsession with the characters inThe Outsiders, the shocking thrill of reading VC Andrews’ Flowers in the Atticas a teenager. My love of reading continued into college and then adulthood. By now it’s as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth or drinking coffee each morning.
However, this past year I found myself in a reading glut. For the first time in my life, I was having a hard time finding the same pleasure from books that I’ve always taken for granted. Part of this had to do publishing my own novels. Reading had always been my hobby, but suddenly it was my work as well. I was reading more advance review copies, and while there is a certain thrill in reading a book before it’s been released and then putting your endorsement upon it, it’s also a little like being assigned a book for class—even if I love it, I’d still prefer to choose my own titles. Additionally, I was cramming too many things into the day—a full time job and family life, writing, and now the business side of writing which included promotion and connecting with readers and writers. By the time I had a chance to read, I was impatient and lacking the focus to stay with a book. Instead of lingering over literature, I was skimming, rushed, unwilling to expend the effort required of a heavier novel. Because of this, I gravitated toward women’s fiction and domestic thrillers, a genre I both enjoy and write. Yet I realized that reading too many books in the same niche market led to me growing bored with reading for the first time in my life.
Summer has always been a time when I can spend more time with books, and I entered July with anxiety over my “problem.” How to recapture my love of reading—something that was not only important to my career (as both a writer and teacher) but also vital to my enjoyment of life?
Having recently acquired my first Kindle, I decided I needed to mix up my reading choices. Since it was summer and I had time to read more than twenty minutes a day, I would try a few books that required a little more effort on my part and that were different in style and genre than what I usually gravitate toward. I started with Tangerineby Christine Monahan, a novel that isn’t that far from the genre that I’d been reading recently except it takes place in Tangier during the 1950s and the distant setting is integral to the plot. I read this one while in Edinburgh on vacation with my husband and tore through it in just a few days. Buoyed by my success, I next tackled My Absolute Darlingby Gabriel Tallent, a novel I’d been intrigued by but hadn’t picked up because of its dark subject matter and exquisite prose that, while beautiful, often required a dictionary. This was one of the most devastating and riveting books I’ve read in recent years, one that left my head spinning and made me wish I had a book club to talk about it with later. Then I read Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, a historical fiction novel set in New York City during World War Two.
At the same time, I’ve been listening to Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, read by Patchett herself. I’m new to audio books and have loved listening to this thoughtful and honest meditation on writing, friendship, career, and marriage, as one of my favorite authors reflects upon the course of her life as a writer. The experiment continued and now I’ve moved on to YA titles and books on teaching as I get ready to start the school year.
Turns out, a little variety in my books and more time to devote to them was all I needed. One month and nine books and counting later, I am happily reading again.
As I head into the end of August and gear up for September, I hope I don’t slip into my old book malaise, but even if I do, I’m soothed by the thought that all I need to revive my first love is a little variety and patience.
My Summer Reading List so far:
Tangerine by Christine Monahan
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (YA)
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
Moving Forward with Literature Circles by Jeni Pollack Day, Dixie Lee Spiegel, Janet McLellan, and Valerie B. Brown
On my list:
Rebound by Kwame Alexander (YA)
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (short stories)
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Writer Orly Konig and I became friends last year through'17 Scribes, an online group of debut writers. Orly and I also share a fabulous agent and have had a chance to learn the ropes of this crazy publishing business together over the past year and a half. Her first book, The Distance Home released last spring. Her next novel, Carousel Beach, comes out May 8. Read on to learn more about Orly and her books.
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
Oh my, you started with the hardest question first. :-)
I’m an escapee from the corporate world who whole-heartedly embraced the troll-writing life. I work while my son is at school and then fit in additional work around his crazy schedule (we spend a lot of time at climbing gyms). Anyone who follows me on social media knows that I’m a coffee-aholic and am borderline crazy-cat lady. Okay, crazy-animal lady because if it was up to me, I’d have a large property with goats and horses and donkeys and llamas and lots of dogs.
2. Your first book, The Distance Home, came out last spring. Your next book, Carousel Beach, comes out this May. Prior to your first book, was publishing something you’d been pursuing a long time?
I’m a late bloomer to writing, well, to fiction at least. I never had much of a desire to write fiction and the one creative writing class I took in grad school was not a glowing success (the professor told me that wasn’t my strength and I should stick to journalism). Fast forward many years and a long stretch in corporate communications, and I was bored doing pretty much the same thing over and over. When I mentioned to my husband that I needed a new creative outlet and was considering going back for my PhD, he suggested I take a shot at writing again — fiction, essays, whatever. I did. I loved it. Turns out it was a dormant strength. :-)
The Distance Home was actually my fourth completed manuscript and the third that I actively queried. Interestingly enough, Carousel Beach was written — and queried — before The Distance Home but never quite hit the mark. I think it was about 7 years from the first manuscript draft to the one that got picked up.
3. Tell us about your latest book.
Here’s the official blurb for the book: A cryptic letter on her grandmother’s grave and a mysterious inscription on a carousel horse leads artist Maya Brice to Hank Hauser, the ninety-year-old carver of the beloved carousel she has been hired to restore in time for its Fourth of July reopening in her Delaware beach town. Hank suffers from Alzheimer’s, but on his “better” days, Maya is enthralled by the stories of his career. On his “off” days, he mistakes her for her grandmother—his secret first love.
While stripping chipped layers of paint from the old horse and peeling layers of fragmented memories from the old man, Maya untangles the intertwined secrets of love, heartbreak, and misunderstandings between three generations of strong willed women.
4. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
The biggest change has been learning how to manage my time and creative energy between writing and marketing and shifting between multiple stories. Writing and marketing require such different efforts that it’s sometimes hard to move between them. When I get into writing mode, it’s hard for me to switch gears and even harder to let go of the characters that are fresh and fun.
And with multiple projects on the move, it can get tricky remembering what characters belong to what story. In one of the first interviews I did for The Distance Home, I was asked about one particular character and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember who that was or how they fit in the book because my brain was filing through the cast of characters in my WIP instead.
5. When you’re stuck, what helps to get the ideas and words flowing?
Walking away and doing something that’s not writing related helps. I crochet a lot when I’m working on a project. There’s something about busy fingers that allows my brain to noodle story ideas. I’ll also get on the treadmill or spin bike and think about the next scene or scenes. And, I’m hopelessly stuck, I futz around with house stuff — write a paragraph, change the laundry load; delete two pages, scrub the toilets.
6. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I know I shouldn’t, but I do look. Honestly, I cringe at all of them. Obviously it’s easier to read the good ones but even those feel like they belong to someone else. I don’t let the bad ones get to me though. I’m pretty good about shrugging it off. I know my books aren’t for everyone and that’s okay.
7. What’s on your tbr pile right now? Have you read anything recently that you loved?
Oh my goodness, what isn’t on my TBR pile right now. I read a lot of ARCs for fellow authors so those take priority but, of course, I still buy a billion books. And since I’m not a speed reader, it takes me time to get through a book. I read mostly at night before going to bed and I’m usually so tired that I fall asleep pretty quickly. I try to make Fridays reading days but that doesn’t always work.
I’ve read a few fabulous books lately. This Bright Beauty absolutely blew me away, then promptly sent me into a panic of “I’ll never be this good.” :-) I also loved Heather Webb’s The Phantom’s Apprentice. And I recently finished Learning to Stay by Erin Celello.
8. Anything else you want to tell us about yourself or your writing?
Writing is my therapy. It’s my way of sorting through emotions, fears, frustrations. Through my characters I can say or do things I wouldn’t dream of actually doing. I can give a character a profession or hobby that fascinates me. When I write, I’m in control and that’s not always the case in real life. No wonder then that I get itchy when I’m not writing. :-)
To connect with Orly, you can find her here:
I once heard that memory doesn’t develop in a child until age three. But I remember this: sleeping in the crib with Franci, our faces nearly touch- ing, inhaling the milky scent of each other’s breath. e sun refracted through the slats of the crib, washing Franci’s pink skin in gold. Her thumb was tucked tightly between my lips, and I was vaguely aware of the warm, wet feeling of my own thumb in Franci’s mouth. A light wind ru ed the curtains. We slept, we breathed, our arms woven to share thumbs.
Whenever someone asks me what it’s like to be a twin, this is the image that comes back to me. I wish I could pluck it from my mind and hold it up to the light like a slide.
“This is what it’s like,” I would say.
We were born twelve weeks early, our tiny bodies already tired of shar- ing such a small space. I’m sure I started it, always eager, needing to be rst, not even born and already sick of sharing. I picture myself exing my scrawny limbs, all two pounds and four ounces, arching my back in the warm, cramped space of our mother’s womb, and deciding, Enough. I began the long descent into the world, like an animal burrowing through a tunnel, trying to nd the hole on the other end.
And then I picture Franci. Two pounds and one ounce, and per- fectly content to spend another three months curled up beside me.
Someone should have told me there was no hurry. ings would be no di erent outside that safe warm space. We’d share tight spaces all our lives.
We weren’t ready. Oh, our bodies had formed. We had ngers and toes and hearts and lungs and kidneys. We had brains. But Franci wasn’t ready. And maybe I wasn’t, either. For six months we’d lived as one being, our bodies nearly fused together. In the moments we prepared to part our solitary space, I wonder if my mind was doing its own split- ting, fracturing into the Black and White that would eventually rule my life. Later I’d wonder if things would have been di erent had we been allowed those extra months that should have been ours.
I began the slow and awful descent, and Franci had no choice but to follow, out into the cold and gaping world, the bright light of life already blinding.
I was born six minutes before Franci, and I waited patiently for her to arrive. In our separate incubators we drank oxygen, and plastic tubes were secured to our translucent skin with tape. I must have been so pleased to have my own bed, inches of empty space surrounding me, no elbows crammed into my face, no feet squashing my belly. In those crucial minutes, I was surviving on my own, and I held on to that knowledge so many times later in life.
But Franci’s heart was beating too fast, her breath coming in short and jagged gasps. Put me back, her body screamed. I’m not ready. Did I feel guilty then, for what I had started? I wonder if she ever forgave me for it.
It was one of the rst stories I remember hearing from Mother. e rest of the story goes like this: Franci was dying. Or not dying yet, but not coming into life, either. en a nurse suggested putting her in the same incubator as me. ey placed her at my side and immediately she calmed down. Her heart rate slowed, and she began to breathe more regularly. And though I imagine I relished the unfamiliar feeling of all that space to myself, I also know that I was more comfortable once Franci was beside me again. In our new shared bed, I coiled my body around my sister, encircling her in a cocooning embrace. ere’s a picture of it in one of the musty yellow photo albums. Two tiny black- haired babies in only diapers, tubes stuck to splayed legs, and the one on the left curved around the one on the right, shielding the other baby from . . . what? From life? Not even a day old, and I’d saved her life.
It wasn’t until I was older that I wondered: Why would you repeat such a tale to children, a tale of failure and inability that was present from the beginning? A tale so lled with powerlessness and dependency that it seemed innate. But Mother told the tale because she thought it explained our twinship, how close we were, even then.
How different the rest of our lives turned out to be. In the end, Franci would be the one to save my life over and over again. And then one day, she couldn’t.
Like what you've read so far? THIS BRIGHT BEAUTY is available to purchase--print, Kindle/ebook, or audio. You can find it here.
Big thanks to my friend and agent-mate Orly Konig for interviewing me about writing, This Bright Beauty, and one of my all time favorite things--coffee! Pour yourself a cup and browse her website while you're there. Orly's first novel, The Distance Home, debuted last year, and I can't wait to read her next book, Carousel Beach, out this May. Check out the interview here.
It’s starting again. The winter blahs. It’s mid-January, past the holiday craziness and New Year excitement. The ground is frozen, the sky is gray, and I don’t see the mountain in my mudroom diminshing anytime soon. (Hello, bulky coats, boots, snow pants, scarves, hats, and mittens without mates!) The days are short, it’s dark when leaving work, and I’ve lived in New England long enough to know that this is only the beginning.
Every year that feeling settles in, a combination of blues and restlessness. I vacillate between never wanting to leave the safety and warmth of my couch and wanting to pack a few suitcases and move to someplace warmer, leaving the entire Northeast in my rearview mirror. I think all New Englanders feel this way at some point during the winter, but island life can really amp up that lonesome edginess, that feeling of What on earth are we doing here? that kicks in as I drive down a deserted Circuit Ave or walk into another empty restaurant.
This year I’m doing my best to combat the inevitable malaise with a new strategy: stay as busy as possible. I booked my kids into extra after school activities, planned several weekends out of town, and am trying to fight my inner anti-socialite and actually get out of my house on Saturday and Sunday. It’s sort of working, but it’s still January and really cold out there.
The other day the temperature tipped fifty. When I got in my car on the way to work, I heard birds chirping, a sound so unexpected and cheerful that I stopped in the driveway to listen. I drove over the bridge and marveled at the golden glow of the sunrise coming up over the lagoon, even pulling over to attempt to capture a photo. I’m not so naive as to actually think that spring is coming. Later that week it was in the twenties again, the sky slate grey and somber. Yet it was a reminder, however small, that winter does give us little pockets of beauty. The trick is to look for them.
This morning, like many mornings, one of my daughters got ahold of my phone. There is something so seductive about that little glowing rectangle that neither of them can resist. I understand its pull, the easy diversion, a quick hit of Facebook or Instagram, a one-minute email check, a message sent or received. I was only half aware that she’d taken the phone, and I soon retrieved it, and we both moved on to other things.
Later this evening, I stumbled upon the snatched minutes my daughter had captured—my husband and I in rumpled Sunday morning disarray, me still in pajamas drinking a cup of coffee, having a conversation with all three of them at once (three separate conversations, obviously). As I watched the video there was the inevitable discomfort of seeing myself but what struck me more was not how bad my hair looked or my pasty skin but instead the comfortable ordinariness captured on film. My daughter asks my husband what he wants for his birthday and he barks in jest, “Peace and quiet!” Then there’s a flash in the corner of the screen of my younger daughter as she trips and falls on something and I get up to comfort her, the camera all the while still rolling.
Watching the video, I had practically forgotten those particular minutes, indistinguishable from the rest of the day except for the fact that my phone had been hijacked by my daughter, a secret documentary filmmaker, capturing a tiny slice of our life. I deleted the video, because who needs all that clutter filling up their storage, and already I regret it. I can imagine twenty years from now, when my children are out of the house, watching a whole collection of these candid videos, and looking back longingly on the simple chaos of such a Sunday morning. These are rarely the minutes we bother filming because they’re so unmemorable, but perhaps this is what makes them important. Life is not all birthday parties, Christmas, and Halloween, it is made up of ordinary Sundays and harried Tuesdays.
So I will use the handy function that allows me to retrieve a deleted item so I can watch this gem some day in the future. In the meantime, I trust that both of my daughters will steal my phone often enough to fill it with snatched memories, moments that remind me to slow down, take a breath, and enjoy.
As I write this, I’m sitting in front of a fireplace, in a cozy house in Maine. My husband is reading, one child is sleeping, and the other is using the new set of colored pencils she purchased this afternoon. It is quiet and peaceful, and I feel more relaxed than I’ve been in a while. We have done something rare—gone away for a long weekend.
It’s not that we never going anywhere. We make frequent trips to visit family and friends in Boston, and we make an annual journey back to Ireland for several weeks to visit my husband’s family. But as much as we enjoy those trips, they are places familiar to us where we spend much of our time zooming here and there, catching up with people we don’t get a chance to see very often.
This weekend is something different. This weekend it is just the four of us, in a town none of us has ever been, without the usual rhythm or routine of a weekend at home.
Once upon a time, my husband loved to travel. I’m more of a homebody, but that’s not the real reason we never go away. First there was all of the baby equipment—the pack n play and baby monitor, bottles, formula, and binkies, strollers and sleep sacks, the list was endless. Then there was the nap cycle, a much-needed break that kept at least one of us chained to the house for several hours in the middle of the day. Not to mention that by the end of the week, we are all darn tired. Add to that living on an island where it takes about an hour just to get to the mainland. Travelling is hard work, and I like my own bed
And yet, after spending several weeks with our two children last summer in Ireland and flying home with them on my own (seven hour flight + overnight stay in hotel + car journey + boat ride=possible hell), I made a remarkable discovery. They were okay. I wasn’t weighed down with gear like a mule, no one fell apart (for more than a few minutes), and they were actually quite pleasant to be with. It gave me a boost of confidence that maybe we were ready to make another trip closer to home.
Last night when we got stuck in traffic, a voice in my head started saying, “See, this is why you never go anywhere!” But then we arrived and settled in to the lovely house we’re staying, and I watched my daughters' excitement as they set up for one of their infrequent sleepovers. We’re doing all right, I thought.
Today we ventured out to do some shopping, and I knew it was all going to blow up in my face. Shopping with kids—does it ever go well? But they ended up surprising me again, my younger daughter somehow occupying herself with a shoe display while the older one helped me find a pair of shoes. In another shop, the younger one played at the jewelry rack, the older one tried out the price scanner, and my husband used the fitting room. We had lunch in a restaurant where the girls tried their first oysters (a semi success) and ended the day in a toy store.
Were there a few tears? Of course. Was there sporadic fighting and fussing? Yes, I suppose a little bit, this is family life, after all. But was there laughing, singing in the car, morning glory muffins, unexpected presents, and the start of a weekend we’ll remember? Most definitely.
In this post on Women Writers, Women's Books, I discuss how motherhood has influenced my writing. For anyone who has ever wondered how a working mom finds time to write a book, here's my answer.