Just Ordinary Citizens: The affection we feel for outgoing presidents

On the Morning Of

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I make no apologies for the fact that my main feelings today on the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States are of affection for the outgoing 44th. Maybe it is because the Obamas are my generation (like Michelle, I was born in 1964). Maybe it is because I found my political core—apart from my parents or friends or outside expectations—during President Obama’s terms. Maybe it is because our son was not quite of voting age during the 2008 election, so I felt a sense of proxy at the voting booth—I was casting a ballot for both of us—in doing what he could not eight years ago. Maybe it is because we had a First Family in the White House with young children whom we watched grow and mature before our eyes.

Presidential families do feel like our families, too. They enter our living rooms and private spaces and, in some cases, our hearts. Our current age of partisanship, of course, taints the relationship (this post will certainly be seen as fawning and will invite some snark), but the feelings are beyond politics.

When Amy Carter moved to the White House in 1977, she was nine and I was twelve. I read every article I could about her—what she liked, where she was going to go to school, details of her daily life. I don’t remember ever feeling as though I should not be fascinated by her and her newly public life, even though I grew up in a strongly Republican household and red state. I wonder if I were in those circumstances today, would I feel more pressure to act—to feel—differently simply because the president’s politics were not those of my parents?

Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher

One of my personal projects is transcribing diaries of my great-aunt Hattie, a woman of mixed heritage who lived in a rural reservation county in South Dakota. Her diaries, which she kept every single day from 1920 through much of 1957, are filled with mundane details of weather and chores but also her impressions on national and world events, especially presidential elections and transitions (read her entry about voting for the first time in 1920). As I follow politics on Twitter and listen to podcasts (e.g., you can hear Obama’s last interview as president at Pod Save America), I imagine her sitting by her radio, her only source for real-times news, drinking in every word, perhaps taking notes to use for when she wrote in her diary.

In 1953, Hattie was 71 years old when she wrote about the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the transition from Harry S. Truman (see bottom of post for videos):

January 20, 1953, Tuesday

A few clouds but some Sunshine. Men gave cattle hay in a.m. I listened to Inaugural of Pres. Eisenhower and Truman (Harry) going out at Noon, I guess 11:30 our time. Vice-Pres. Richard Nixon of California took Barkley’s place. Mr. and Mrs. Truman, Harry, Bess and daughter Margaret left Washington in Private Car of Pres. but just ordinary citizens for their home at Independence, Missouri. Ex. Pres. Truman was [to] give farewell as Train left Washington. I guess the Cheers they gave made Mr. Truman sad at Heart, one [day] he [will not] forget if he lived to be a hundred years, which he [is] going to be. His Office will be at Kansas City. I don’t know if Mo. or Kansas. I like the 2 small Rugs in Back Porch of varied stripes while I write in diary. I rest to admire these rugs.

Her heart is with Truman and his family, now “just ordinary citizens,” as they make their way home.

Similarly, my heart and thanks are with the Obamas today.

I am also struck by the final lines of Hattie’s entry, her meditative focus on the simple beauty found in her own home, her stopping her writing to admire two small rugs, almost as a way to ground herself on this very emotional day.

Life offers us meaning and beauty in unexpected ways. Yesterday, in my work as a book indexer, I was writing an entry for Freddie Mercury, which led me to think about my favorite Queen songs. I played “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which seemed a fitting tribute to our outgoing president. I played it over and over.

Don’t stop now, Mr. Obama. See you on the other side of the presidency.

Truman’s Farewell Address
Eisenhower’s Inauguration
Post edited slightly January 21, 2017.

Dear Neglected Blog

During the past seven years, I’ve used blogging to motivate and entertain myself, to share other blogs and resources, to think out loud, to meet readers and writers. I know it goes against rules of personal branding, but I treat my blog as I did my childhood bedroom—changing the furniture arrangement when I’m bored, sewing new curtains, repainting the walls, decluttering now and then.

2017 feels like a time to return to some serious blogging, with a renewed focus and plan, starting with a new tagline: Writing my way to meaning.

Meaning is, after all, the role that writing plays in my life, in at least a couple of ways. First, the act of writing itself brings meaning to my days. Whether it is writing a blog post or poem, short story or essay, for publication or not, I end my day better and fall asleep more satisfied if I have written. It took me most of my life to figure that out—that meeting specific writing goals are not, in the long-term, as important to me as the act and process of writing itself. Writing is an aspect of finding authenticity: when I write, I am more myself.

Second, writing is and has always been my go-to way to find meaning, to understand better the world and my place in it, to discover a purpose. In my particular search for meaning, writing works better than talking, better than reading, much better than thinking alone—as useful as those activities are. When I’m feeling particularly flummoxed by life, I am probably not writing much (it took me a long time to figure that out, as well).

A fun fact: this is the 735th published post here. Of those, these three have the most all-time views:

Finally, I plan to use blogging in 2017 as a way to push through the natural second-guessing and self-doubt that plague most if not all writers at least some of the time. Once I get in the habit of talking myself out of writing—of allowing silent hesitations and uncertainties to call the shots as I type a sentence and then letter by letter delete it—I can quickly grind to a stop for an unbelievably long time. After all, there are so many reasons not to write:

a) The topic is not original.
b) The topic is boring.
c) I’m not sure of what I think.
d) Readers will roll their eyes.
e) Who else cares besides me, anyway?
f) I’m not smart/skilled/worthy enough to put my words before readers.
g) All of the above.

Goodness, I’m deflated just typing out that inner dialogue!

However, the good news is that when I return to the habit of writing through those doubts and hitting PUBLISH anyway, the thoughts lose their power and diminish, and the momentum of writing can return. As the authors of The Confidence Code remind us: “Nothing builds confidence like taking action.”

So, dear neglected blog, I promise to pay attention to you in 2017, knowing that you will repay me many times over.

What role does blogging play in your life?

Is 2017 the year for you to attend to a neglected blog?

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Five Books I Read and Loved in 2016

I’m terrible at making lists, especially ranked lists. Coming up with my favorite anything is nearly impossible, especially if it has to be done on the spot. Even when there is time to ponder my answer (or write a blog post), I still struggle and second-guess myself and feel an inexplicable disloyalty to items not chosen. Books and movies are, after all, friends, and who wants to rank one’s friends?

This year, however, I’ve enjoyed several “favorite books of 2016” lists from other bloggers that have arrived in my inbox, so I will play, too. Here are five books (in alphabetical order) that have become a part of me in 2016, along with a bit of explanation of how I found them. Maybe among them you will find a title to add to your to-read list for 2017.

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers (cover)

Somehow I’d missed hearing of news surrounding the million-dollar bidding war for Imbolo Mbue’s first novel, Behold the Dreamers. I first learned of the book through a review on Ainehi Edoro’s blog/website Brittle Paper (see also Things Fall Apart, below). The characters of Jende and Neni as they chase an elusive American Dream have stayed with me ever since, and I agree with the Kirkus review: “Realistic, tragic, and still remarkably kind to all its characters, this is a special book.” Watch Imbolo Mbue discuss her debut title:




Dune, by Frank Herbert

Dune (cover)

I’m not sure how I made it to age fifty-two without having read Dune, but when I saw that Emily Asher-Perrin at Tor.com was going to write a series of posts on “Rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune,” I took it as a sign to remedy this particular reading gap. Even before reaching the last page, I knew that this was a book I, too, would be re-reading sooner rather than later. Below, Frank Herbert discusses the world of Dune in a 1982 interview:




Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart (cover)

I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in preparation for Behold the Dreamers because of this paragraph in Ainehi Edoro’s review of Mbue’s novel at Brittle Paper (Edoro describes Brittle Paper as “the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture”):

Behold the Dreamers is also beautifully Achebean. “America is the center of the world,” Jende says to his wife as they sit below the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle. “Columbus Circle is the center of Manhattan. Manhattan is the center of New York. New York is the Center of America and America is the center of the world. So we are sitting in the Center of the world, right?” This is one of the most Achebean moments in the novel. Underneath this e



e of America as a durable center holding the world in neatly drawn concentric circles is the freakish force of the housing market set to destabilize global economy. Mbue’s New York City recalls Achebe’s enduring image of a community falling apart at the moment it imagines itself to be the center of the world. Read full review

Like DuneThings Fall Apart is a book that I somehow had missed reading (and should have read) in my younger days. Its mythic quality and relevance made me feel that I had read it before. I highly recommend the Norton Critical Edition of the novel, which features contextual essays and interviews. Also read the New Yorker’s “After Empire: Chinua Achebe and the great African novel.”

Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life (cover)

Like much of the rest of the world, I caught Hamilton fever in 2016 in a big way. After reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, upon which the Broadway musical is based, I turned to Chernow’s Pulitzer-winning biography of George Washington, forever enriching and complicating my understanding of our first president (and Martha). Read a review and excerpt at NPR.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Huraki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (cover)

In October, my husband and I made a bit of an impromptu trip to New York to use some airline miles that were about to expire. While in a lower Manhattan bookstore, I decided to get something not only to read on the way home but also as a memento of the trip (there is a special joy in remembering travels while reading a book bought on the journey). Having enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Kafka on the Shore, I chose his The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I was not disappointed. Once again, his words and story made me view life anew, as a journey with the potential for hidden and even magical realties and meaning embedded in each moment, choice, and interaction. Read a Paris Review interview with Murakami here.

What were some books that you read and loved in 2016?

Fall Photos and Fabulous Fiction

This morning as I walked my usual path in our neighborhood—feet crunching on unraked leaves, eyes squinting into a strong early November sun, face soaking in unusual fall warmth—I listened to writer Karen Russell read and discuss Mavis Gallant’s New Yorker short story “From the Fifteenth District.”


The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is one of my favorite ways to discover new authors and pick up some craft tips. The length of about 40-50 minutes is perfect for a stroll. and because I listen to that particular podcast only when walking, I realized this morning that I’m practicing temptation bundling.

fullsizeoutput_138cIn a summer 2016 New Yorker interview about balancing humor and horror, Russell said of Gallant’s short story:

One of my favorite short stories is Mavis Gallant’s “From the Fifteenth District.” In it, the dead are haunted by the living. One ghost complains that her widower husband keeps calling her “an angel”—she hates this bogus, patronizing word. It’s a monocular capture of her life. This got me thinking about eulogies—someone ascribing a single, static identity to you, posthumously. We do it to one another all the time, of course.


Listen to the podcast online here and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.


See Also

Do you have a favorite podcast that inspires or informs your writing?



Writers, Social Media, and In-Between Moments

This past summer I took a bit of break from social media, which I’ve done periodically in the past for a few weeks at at time. As always, the time off offered some good reminders and fresh perspectives (including what I love about social media, but that’s another post).  One insight that I’ve been thinking about lately is writerly obsession and our use of in-between time.

“Writers are not all here, because a part of them is always ‘over there’—’over there’ being whatever world they are writing about at present. Writers live in two worlds—the real world of friends and family and the imaginary world of their writing…. Each is compelling in its own way and each makes its demands on a writer’s time.” ~ Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works, page 5

Social media becomes an easy substitute for the kind of obsessive thinking that is good for writers, a kind of positive distraction. Think of the last time you were truly engrossed in a writing project. You went to bed thinking about it, you woke up thinking about it. If you were lucky, you dreamt about it. You may have bored your family and friends by talking about it. Like Terry Brooks, you went through your day only half present, because the other part of your mind and heart and soul was somewhere else—with your writing. This meant that any in-between times in the day—waiting in line at the Post Office, sitting in a car wash, watching a pot of water come to a boil—would be jealously snatched as writing time, if only to think more about the words you would put on the page as soon as you were able.

Photo credit: mat_n (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ https://flic.kr/p/2pf9kY

Photo credit: mat_n (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This was how writing worked for me at the beginning of my writing career, when our son was very young and before 24/7 internet and smart phones. I admit it happens more rarely these days. Those in-between times are too easily filled with checking email or Facebook or Twitter, playing Words with Friends,  seeing if a friend has posted a new Instagram photo, or, these days, compulsively checking election news and polls.

When I do sit down to write, it takes much more effort to gather momentum than if I’d been quietly obsessing all day long. And if I can’t think of what to write or how to continue from where I left off, rather than stare into space until I figure it out, my phone is always within reach.