Why We Can’t Just Stop at Books; On Losing My Idol, Dealing with Anxiety, and the Evolving Nature of My Book Exchange Idea.

I took the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death really, really hard. For days whenever I found myself alone, I’d cry. Every chance I got I let myself cry; on trips to the bathroom, in my car, in the shower, in bed. My love and admiration for the man simply cannot be overstated. I adored him. Always will. I loved him with every fiber of my being, in that unique way reserved for celebrities.

His greatest attribute, in my opinion, was his ability to take a backseat to wherever he was. He wasn’t AN AMERICAN in Iran. He was just some guy, there to talk about everything they did well, talk about everything they loved. His shows were about the places and the people there, not him. Bourdain was truly an explorer and a student of the world. He never went somewhere to discover it and expose it, or to bring it back, strip it for parts, and Americanize it. The style he traveled in was a curious way, not a bucket list, did-it-for-the-snap type of thing; he was there to learn.

He understood people and he was kind. He was also funny, crude, and self-deprecating; the total package, really. So, when Tony died, when he committed suicide, I broke.

On one hand he had it all: many peoples’ dream job – my dream job. I sit behind a desk all day, staring at my three screens, flattening my ass, making money for people who already have it.
He saw. He did. He ATE! How could the big sad get to him?
Maybe, seeing so much of the world and its worst problems makes for a sad job too; despite how good the food is or how many amazing sites there are. People who travel or have money can still be sad.

When you’re famous or wealthy people call your problems “rich people problems” like they’re not real. *Granted, I did stop watching the Real Housewives when one of the OC gals bought a bathroom counter top that was more expensive than the home I was living in. She was complaining about the marble for some reason and I just COULD NOT. That was not a real problem. Many other problems celebrities have are real though – no privacy, the insane life-ruining rumors, being held to such a high standard at all times. Those are real, and that is something none of us non-famous people have.

In reality most problems are real though. Most of life is hard. For everyone; pretty people, rich people, poor people, us behind desks, and those who get to live “the dream” – it’s all hard. Anyone can be sad. Anyone can be depressed, because it’s a brain thing. Not a life style thing. Yes, you can be universally and unequivocally beautiful, but still have self-esteem issues. You can lose 50 pounds in a year and still have issues wearing tank tops. You can eat the best food under the sun and still not want to live.

And that’s the struggle, unless you constantly check in with your friends and with yourself, you don’t know what people are fighting underneath it all. Many mental health problems come with the tactics to hide them. Sad people are super great at pretending to be happy. So how would you know? You ask. And we remove the stigma enough so that those struggling feel comfortable enough to talk.

I’ve been hosting book exchanges for about a year and have done three so far: diversity, feminism, and most recently mental health awareness. Mental health was always third on my list; it should have happened a lot sooner. I had trouble getting it together earlier in the year, and almost didn’t host it at all because of that. With Tony’s death, though, I’m glad it happened when it did. Celebrities aren’t the most important people in the world by default, and we shouldn’t just pay attention when they struggle. However, the conversation had to trickle down and become more real in my life immediately after this celebrity death.
It was time.

Le set up:
Since books and talking about books in a group setting are not everyone’s jam, I really try to bribe folks into coming to my events.
• Book exchanges are always held at brunch time, because mimosas.
• They always include gift bags. Everyone loves trinkets.
• There’s always wrapping paper.

For every topic, those invited bring a related book. The diversity exchange was obviously filled with books by people of color. For feminism, there was some Rupi Kaur, Maggie Nelson, and Gloria Steinem. To add some fun, books come wrapped in bright wrapping paper. I always wrap mine in either rainbows, zebras in scarves, or confetti print.

wrapping_paper
Fun paper!

At some point in the brunch, we go around the group and everyone talks a little bit about the book they brought. We talk about how it relates to the topic at hand and big takeaways we had while reading. Then one at a time we pick blindly from the stack of wrapped books. This way, you know what you could get, you’ve heard from everyone on the book they brought; but you don’t know exactly what you’re picking up. This prevents someone from bringing a book that’s special and meaningful, then seeing people avoid it in the stack. It’s no fun to really love something and think it important and worthy, and then have people clearly not want it. It’s borderline hurtful.

It’s a really simple event. I usually say a few words before about why we’re there and a few words at the end about the goodie bags everyone will go home with. Hope Number One is that people come, have fun with their friends, and eat good food while still thinking about an important topic once they head home. Hope Number Two is that everyone reads the book they left with. I look at exchanges as a helpful starting point.

Best Case Scenario —
Book exchange invitee:
“How do I get into [insert any topic here]?
Oh, here’s six girls I know, work with, and trust.
Wow, they’ve recommended a lot of books on this subject I’m curious about.
I am glad I picked this book.
That was fun brunch.
Imma read this right now!”

The mental health exchange was important because I struggle with anxiety and depression. I lay awake many nights, getting zero sleep, worrying over things that are not that big of a deal come sunrise. As a general rule, I assume people don’t like me and I second guess almost every text I send and wonder if I’m being annoying. I’ve thrown up after concerts and parties because I was too nervous during the “fun” and by the end had been so nervous for so long, that I needed to vomit. Crying in the shower is my jam. Crying in the bathroom and in the car are also my jams.

**But I’m okay – this isn’t a cry for help. I’ve done that elsewhere, many times.

I also have friends who struggle. Friends I know have dark, scary thoughts. It’s difficult to know how to help. There’s a fine line between being there / being a sounding board and letting someone dip too far into sadness. It’s hard to know when to say, “You’re absolutely right, that’s not fair. Life should not be this way.” And when to say, “You don’t have to be this sad. Let’s get you a therapist, let’s get some medicine, let’s go out for dinner. PLEASE DON’T BE SO SAD I LOVE YOU!”

Bottom line. The thing I’ve started to do most is try more and be super honest. I’ve started saying things like: “I almost never know what to say, but I’m listening. I don’t know how to help other than to listen to you, to hang out with you, to buy you flowers and books, but I’m still here. My phone is on.”

I think the problem with mental illness isn’t that we don’t think it’s real anymore. I think there’s probably still a lot of that somewhere. The thinking that if you just worked out more, you’d have enough endorphins to be happy. Or if you just didn’t worry so much, you wouldn’t be so anxious. Mind over matter – be stronger. I don’t run into that much. What I do run into is total loss for how to help. Total loss for how to cope. And that’s where I think we’ve transitioned. We get that it’s real, but we still don’t understand it enough to help in a concrete way.

Talking about it, though, I think can really help. Being honest about what you need and how people can help you. Also, being honest about how much you actually can help others. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start or what to ask for. It’s hard to know what to offer. But if we just start, maybe we’ll figure it out.
Books are always my starting point, so that’s where we started this time.

Since I struggle and have friends who struggle and because there’s been a few high-profile suicides lately, I wanted so badly for people to come to this exchange. I was kind of blinded and had crazy, unrealistic expectations. The first time I tried to schedule, my friends had the following things come up: a pet death, an apartment fire, a sudden work-related thing, a wedding, and a dog sitting gig all on the same weekend. I was butt hurt when life happened during my specifically scheduled thing. I thought, “Why are you not coming to something that’s important to me! Why can’t I be a priority? I’m only asking for 2 hours of your weekend!!”
(But like, pet death… come on, Dimery.)

And I was bummed for a long time. I already bought all the goody bags, I already wrapped my book, I scheduled the venue; and it all fell through. I vowed to never host a book exchange again. Later someone who was out of town but had been invited, asked how it went. I very tactfully explained that everyone hated me and no one wanted to come to my event, because I’m a damn drama queen. She was unfazed, said I should reschedule and she wished she could have gone. Also, my very dearest and most logical friend said to me earlier that week that I could not hold it against people for not LOVING books like I do. She very calmly and rationally and lovingly explained to me that people have other things going on. Life does get in the way, but it doesn’t mean my friends don’t support me and love me. I remember saying, “I know you’re right, but I’m still sad/mad.”

Eventually I did get over myself with the help and support mentioned above. My bestie told me that even if she, I, and one other person were all there was, it would still be worth it. That’s true. I was just blinded by me need to host this thing. Filled with renewed confidence I rescheduled and invited even more girls to come. I’m not sure if I was giving off vibes that said, “Please love me. Please come to my thing. It is so important to me. I would love to share it with you.”
OR If I was giving off vibes that said, “Come to my effing event or so help me God, I will never speak to you again!”

Either way, ten girls showed up.

I booked this amazing restaurant in Denton called Barley and Board. We got the entire loft area to ourselves which was incredible. Book exchanges work so much better when there’s some privacy. Their food is wonderful, their coffee is better, and their cocktails are everything. Every single girl who came up commented on the atmosphere, seriously everyone.
Girls from work made up the guest list, all except one; my dear sweet friend, Leigha. Even though we all knew each other, there were girls who had stopped working with us years ago. It was basically a reunion! Which again, was the best! It was a great vibe. I was sitting in the middle at this long table of ten. I’d look to my left and there would be four gals laughing and loving life. Then I’d look to my right and there would be four more doing the same. In front of me, my sweet friend Marika and I would lock eyes and I’d just beam at her. Being stuck in the middle is hard because you’re too far away from both edges to really talk to either side. Neither of us was really included in the groups of four next to us, but it was also too loud to really talk to each other too. I just sat there, mishearing conversations and trying to pipe in anyway, and yelling in vain at people three chairs away, but so loving that everyone was having fun!!

My single biggest worry about my events is that people who don’t love books, won’t love them. As it has been kindly explained to me, books just aren’t everyone’s thing. But I still want people there, I still think this idea is valid even if you don’t read much. I try to be chill. Come for the food, the friends, and we’ll throw some book talk in there. I don’t want people to leave and never want to come back because I berated them for an hour because they don’t read diversely enough or they aren’t feminist enough. Or in this case, don’t think about mental illness enough. I focused this time on sitting back and letting everyone enjoy the atmosphere. I just sat there with sunshine coming out my face because I was so happy people were having a good time.

We did all talk book at the end as we always do. It was just so incredibly hard to rein in ten girls.
Parts of a hilarious conversation would float up or I would see girls with tears in their eyes from laughter and I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt. Every time I’d get ready to begin, I just thought, “Well, I can’t interrupt that yet. I gotta let that conversation run its course.”

Because of that, even though this event was closest to my heart and most relevant to my life, it had the least book talk. I wanted everyone happy and comfortable. We also had many new girls at this one who I was trying to be gentle with. Of course, the first time I did this, everyone was new. But we had fewer girls then (about half the number here) and we really took the time to be still and talk through our books while testing this kind of event. Talking in a group like this is basically public speaking, and you can tell when people get nervous. Having the biggest exchange ever with the highest number of new people was intimidating. But really, everyone did so well. It’s weird to say, but I was very very proud of all my friends. Talking about something hard in front of a large group, is terrifying. And everyone was so eloquent and respectful. After each girl gave her blurb, you’d hear rumbles of, “Oh, I think I want that one.” It was beautiful. I could cry just thinking about how nice we all were and genuinely invested in each other’s picks. Although it took a long time to get started, and we wrapped up the book talk pretty instantly, I still think it went well. People had fun! People ate. That’s goal number one. Everyone did take a book home, so hopefully they had mental health on their mind for longer than the 30 minutes we went around the table.
Goal one – CHECK!

Goal two is difficult to attain. How to get everyone to read the book they take home is a question I have not yet answered. People read at different paces, and sometimes the mood isn’t right for a certain book. I’ve toyed with the idea of having another exchange where everyone brings their book back and we swap again. Here I’d run into people having not read theirs yet and now never getting a chance to. Maybe someone is in the middle of their book and are now forced to stop reading and give it away. If I put a time limit and force them to read, then it just feels like school. I think it’s a good idea, it’s just not one I’ve had success thinking through and making a reality. This time, with the lack of constructive talk at the exchange, I’d love to host a follow up event.

The follow up idea is perhaps a less formal get together. No goody bags, no invite, no group text where I send relevant TED talks and quotes in the week leading up to the event. Just a get together. Anyone who has started the book they received can come and talk about how it’s going. Finishing the book is not a requirement, because at this point the books are just a starting point. I’d love to have a more organic conversation about mental health and what struggles and triumphs each of us are currently facing. A support group really with books as an introduction, but not as the while point. Again, that’s where I always start, but it never ends there. Life can be mirrored in print, but it’s not only found between pages. It’s out there, so go! Find an idea in print (or any form of art really), and go live it. Ask if your friends are okay. Let someone know if you need help. Pay attention to life around you. Books are a great place to get ideas, but real life is where you put them to use.

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3 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Just Stop at Books; On Losing My Idol, Dealing with Anxiety, and the Evolving Nature of My Book Exchange Idea.

  1. Another amazing post by my amazing kid!! Your words will surely be of help to someone who is struggling in their daily life. You have a gift – thank you for sharing. I love you more than you can ever imagine.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Two things – One, THANK YOU for writing that about Anthony Bourdain. I read this at my desk and teared up a bit. (If I had been alone I may have cried). It really is very sad when someone who seems to “have it all” finds life unbearable. I think you very respectfully captured this, and applaud your ability to do so. Two – As one of the people that attends your book exchanges, I can honestly say, they are great. Keep doing them! I always look forward to them, and they really are so so fun. Keep it up! 🙂

    Like

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