Life Update: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Guided Meditations

Hey friends! Now that it’s March, I thought it would be a good time to do another personal post. Overall, things have been pretty alright! Work is busy but fulfilling, I’ve enjoyed co-authoring the LGBT mental health column at HealthyPlace, and my dog Yoda’s been smiling a lot more on her walks now that the weather’s a little brighter.

But at the same time, my anxiety’s been flaring up a bit and making life less enjoyable than usual. As a result, I’ve been devoting the past few weeks to doing a deep dive on both relieving anxiety and how to cultivate a happy, fulfilling life. Here are a few habits I’ve been trying to pick up from my research in an attempt to replace stress with contentedness:

  • Meditation. So far, this has somehow been one of the most successful calming techniques. Right now, I’m doing five to ten minute recordings but am trying to work my way up to thirty minutes.
  • Exercising more often–taking care of Yoda has helped because I need to take her on a walk every day. Otherwise, I’ve been trying to get into running and strength training lately.
  • Cutting out caffeine. In theory. I have noticed that when I drink less caffeine, I’m less jittery but have yet to go cold turkey for more than a day.
  • Volunteering and trying to focus more on others. Right now I’ve been writing messages for Letters Against Depression, which is a non-profit that sends letters of hope to people battling with mental illnesses. If you’re looking for a volunteer opportunity you can do from home or could use a little support for whatever you’re going through, I’d totally recommend checking out their website.
  • Connecting more with others. Most of the books and articles I’ve read on happiness center around cultivating meaningful relationships. Since I’m pretty shy and just moved to a new city, this has been tough lately but I’ve been trying to get to know my co-workers a little more and hang around writing/book events

So far, things seem like they’re doing better. I’ve been feeling a little more at peace when I get home from work and have been getting more done now that my anxiety’s manageable again. And on the evenings where things feel stressful, there’s always melatonin.

Other than that, here’s a few other things going on:

  • Finally got around to watching Yuri On Ice and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time. Oh, man. If any of you guys ever want to talk about Yuri On Ice, I know I’m like… two years late to the party but guys it’s so wholesome
  • Signed up for my first writing organization–the League of Utah Writers! So far it seems really cool and a good way to meet other local writers
  • Found out that BYU’s doing a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and I am so pumped to see it on Friday! I’ve been waiting to see it performed live literally since I was fifteen and am like counting down the hours. Plus, apparently the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s doing Hamlet this year so overall 2019’s shaping up to be an amazing time
  • My essay “A Whole String of Failures,” which explores Vincent van Gogh’s struggle to find pain in beauty along with some personal experiences, is going to be published in issue two of name and none (a trans and non-binary literary magazine)! Van Gogh is one of my lifelong heroes, and I’m honored to have an essay about him published so close to his 166th birthday on the 30th.
  • Have been reading–some of my favorites this month have been The Little Book of Lykke, The Adventure Zone graphic novel, and Howl’s Moving Castle

What about you? How has your month been and, when things get stressful, what do you find helps? And have you read any good books lately?

YA Review: The Music of What Happens

TitleThe Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: In 1980s Arizona, Max and Jordan bond over food trucks and family secrets. This gay YA romance follows the two over the course of their summer as they decide whether unconditional love is worth the vulnerability.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The Music of What Happens features a queer romance between two cis men, one of whom is biracial. It also features discussion about femininity in gay culture as well as sexual abuse. If either of those might be trigging for you, you may want to read several different reviews before deciding whether this one’s for you. Because this novel takes place in the 1980s, the discrimination and internalized homophobia that Max and Jordan face as queer men is considerably high.

What I liked: One of the most interesting discussions in this book is “feminine” vs “masculine” gay men and how those perceived as feminine or “twink-y” can be alienated by straight as well as other gay men. Although I’ve read novels with feminine gay characters before, I haven’t seen that portrayed so openly in a YA book but it felt very needed. Konigsberg discusses in his end note how he as a gay man has struggled with this pressure, which might feel cathartic for queer readers and enlightening for straight ones.

As far as Max and Jordan go, this is one of the more authentic relationships I’ve read in a YA romance. Their relationship developed so naturally without feeling too contrived or simplistic, and their characters really complemented each other. They connect on such a deep and vulnerable level that, even though the novel explores some tough topics, it felt like an ultimately beautiful story.

Also, though I don’t feel as qualified to comment on this, I thought that the sexual abuse subplot was handled respectfully. It was also powerful in that it involved discussions of homophobia and racism in rape culture that transcended the 1980s setting and still feel relevant today.

And on a side note, look how beautiful the cover art is! What is with all of these amazing YA covers lately? Like whoever’s hiring artists in the publishing industry lately, they’re doing something so right.

Recommended: I’ve noticed other reviewers compare this one to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe and, while I see the similarities, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Both take place in the 1980s and discuss Hispanic culture, but I think their stories are different enough that both tell a valuable story. If you’re a fan of Aristotle and Dante, you might enjoy this one and if not, read both! They’re each beautifully written!

Note: I was given an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Release by Patrick Ness

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Title: Release

Author: Patrick Ness

Rating: 4.5/5

Two sentence summary: Adam Thorn, seventeen-year-old son to a family of preachers, is reeling in the wake of a fractured relationship with his ex-lover and fears that his conservative parents will find out about his sexuality. Release follows Adam over the the course of a day as he faces his past and jumps into a confrontation that may either shatter his heart or finally mend it.


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Photos via Unsplash

What I loved: I always love me some Patrick Ness, and this was no exception. Release is an accurate title for this book. Adam knows that the strong emotions he carries about his situation weigh him down—growing up with his parents’ conditional love, escaping sexual assault from his supervisor, and working through heartbreak have left him with deep wounds. It’s difficult for him to love others, even himself, because affection shown to him has often been warped and always temporary. But this day we follow Adam on sparks something from within—as he lets go of those who have hurt him, he opens himself to feeling all of the pain he’d been blocking at once. And yet, despite this, he is free. His is a bittersweet story, with hope that this day will lead to better ones for Adam.

The stream-of-consciousness narrative of this book was also enjoyable and, I think, a really good way to tell it. Ness was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to write this story, and it has a similarly psychological, internalized feel. Because this book follows Adam from morning until nighttime, we as readers glimpse his thoughts in a way that’s a little more unstructured than most third-person narratives. It heightens the rawness of emotions in a way that fosters deep empathy for Adam and his flawed, conflicted heart.

Quote: “They’re your parents. They’re meant to love you because. Never in spite.”

Recommended: Some books are just beautiful, and Release is one of those. If you want to savor the words, characters, and emotions, this is a hard-hitting yet satisfying read. It is hurtful and healing in a way that only Patrick Ness’s books could be.

Next week: Risen by Cole Gibsen

YA Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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Title: They Both Die at the End

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a near-future world where people get a phone call the day they are going to die, Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio go on an adventure so they don’t have to spend their last day alone. But as they grow closer to each other in their final hours, their focus shifts from dying to, for a few brief hours, finally living.

What I loved: This book. I loved this book. But I also hated it because it struck my emotions hard and wrung them with every page. You know exactly what to expect from the first page: even as you get to know Mateo and Rufus, you know that they’re going to die by the end of the book. The question is when, which keeps the book so captivating. Mateo and Rufus are just as aware as the reader that their time is limited and, in the course of a day, their relationship becomes so intimate and authentic despite how short-lived it is. It’s an equally beautiful and painful musing on how we define life as well as its end.

Quote: “I always wanted to stumble into someone like you.”

Recommended: This book was devastating but in such a necessary way. I’d warn anyone who wants to check this out that it’s a difficult read. Ever since I started hormone replacement therapy last year, I’ve cried a lot less than I used to but this one had me tearing up. If you want an emotional reflection on how mortality can make us love and lose hard, it’s a good book for that. Or if you want to bawl your eyes out. It’s a great book for that, too.

On an unrelated note, Adam Silvera is quickly becoming one of my favorite current LGBTQ YA writers. After reading this book, I couldn’t get my hands on History Is All You Left Me fast enough… which was also a painful, meaningful read. So expect a review on that soon as well!

Next: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

YA Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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Title: Highly Illogical Behavior

Author: John Corey Whaley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixteen-year old Solomon developed agoraphobia after experiencing panic attacks every time he left the house, so eventually he just stopped leaving. His former high school peer Lisa befriends him to cure his anxiety and slowly learns that relationships involve more than just “fixing” people.

What I loved: Most of all, I loved the characters. The more you get into this book, the more these characters’ depths unfold. They’re more than just stock-character high school students, and they can’t really be pinned down to any of their labels. This is especially important in that (without spoiling anything), one of the characters identifies as gay. While their coming out is a strong focus of the story, Whaley doesn’t give the character any of the internalized guilt or non-accepting peers often found in YA novels.

Those stories are important to be told, too, but they are told often. This character’s journey was a lot more nuanced. They feared coming out because they feared changing family dynamics and also hesitated because they never thought their sexual orientation was important to share. But they learn that their identity does matter. Their sexual orientation matters. Their relationships matter. They inherently matter and, though they don’t often believe it, they belong.

There are some dark and painful-to-read parts in this book, I’m not gonna sugar coat it, but the author balances those moments well with plenty of humor and truly happy moments. Overall, a quirky, heartwarming book on how a friendship can change both people for the better.

Quote: “We’re just floating in space trying to figure out what it means to be human.”

Recommended: Especially for Trekkies or sci-fi fans in general. They’ll especially enjoy the references in this one (and there are tons, my friends… it’s glorious). But this is also an honest and beautiful look at anxiety recovery.

Plenty of mental health YA books I’ve read don’t have happy moments. This one really pulls on all emotions: happiness, sorrow, panic, hope, love. The works. Whether you yourself struggle with anxiety or you want to understand what it’s like for those who do, this is a great and lighthearted book with surprising depth.

Next: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

YA Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Note: From here until the end of finals week (April 29th), I will only be posting on Tuesdays.

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Title: Openly Straight

Author: Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: When sixteen year old Rafe transfers to a new boarding school, he decides to hide his sexuality to avoid becoming “the gay kid” like at his old school.

What I loved: Coming out stories are a dime a dozen in YA fiction, but rarely do you see “coming out again” stories. Konigsberg explores an interesting angle here because Rafe’s reasons for hiding his sexual orientation are unique and, for some LGBTQ people, even relatable. Nobody bullied him at school. He had friends who accepted him for him. His parents supported him so much that his mother ran the local PFLAG branch.

But he was tired of people taking his sexuality and making it his whole story. Ever since he came out, he’d given interviews and spoken at local high schools about LGBTQ acceptance. Everyone at his school knew his sexual orientation, and even though nobody discriminated against him, he felt uncomfortable. Because so many people reduced him to his sexuality, he no longer felt normal.

This feeling is understandable, and it likely is for others who come from accepting backgrounds. Konigsberg, however, doesn’t encourage teens in Rafe’s situation to follow his lead. Hiding who you are, if you replace yourself with a lie, can come with unforeseen consequences.

Rafe struggles to suppress his feelings while weaving stories of nonexistent girlfriends, writes to express emotions he doesn’t fully understand, and gets to know another student, Ben, who also represses his sexuality for harder reasons. Unlike Rafe, he hates his sexual orientation so much more deeply. Rafe wants to tell Ben he doesn’t have to be ashamed, but how can he say that when Rafe himself has gone back into the closet?

What Rafe ultimately comes to terms with is labeling: he eventually understands that he doesn’t have to be the gay kid just because he’s out. What other people see doesn’t matter as much as what he does to help them. Throughout the novel, Rafe struggles to help others in ways only he can without revealing his sexuality, a balance that wobbles so much he can’t help but crash. But when he does, he gets back up and achieves a new balance between an open sexual orientation and a multi-dimensional personality.

Quote: “You can be anything you want, but when you go against who you are inside, it doesn’t feel good.”

Recommended? Yes! This was a lot more lighthearted than some of the LGBTQ YA books I’ve read so far, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to younger teens and up.

Next up:  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher