Year in Review: Books that changed my life this year

2018 was a year of great discovery and personal development. Or at least, it was the year that I actually put things into action rather than just thinking about it. Like many people, I have this issue with “time.” Not enough of them, that is. I probably make myself sound like the busiest businesswoman in the world, but in reality that is not what I am. I’m a mom of two small children, with a full time job that has very consistent hours. Besides spending time with my family (which is basically just my kids and husband), I don’t doodle too much into other things besides writing and photography.

And yet…I still feel like I didn’t have enough time to do all the things that I wanted to do. This, more or less, spilled into the idea that in America, being “busy” is considered a good thing, and to feel busy is better than not feeling busy. That’s what I thought at the beginning of the year anyway.

Now that the year is about over, and I’ve had time to reflect, I realize how wrong that type of thinking is.

This year, I made time to do some reading. Every morning from January 1st to today (December 31st), I woke up early, usually around 5:30 a.m. and read until 6:30 a.m., then head to work. As a result, I completed–as in actually finished–50 books. FIFTY!

It’s astonishing to me just how crazy that sounds…and how much I’ve learned through the process of reclaiming my time, and reframing my way of thinking. Doing something you enjoy is such a privilege nowadays, especially when you have little kids and believe me, they take up a lot of your time. Then, if you have a partner/spouse, you need time with them as well.

Speaking of spouses, that was how my husband and I ended up with more time together–in the morning, before reading, sometimes we’d talk about all sorts of different things, things that we typically don’t talk about late in the evening when we’re being interrupted by our kids or too tired to talk. Getting up early in the morning and having a cup of coffee together proved to be the wonderful, valuable time that we needed. It was great that he was also reading along with me. I think the mutual activity was inspiration for us to keep going.

From memoirs to personal finance to parenting books, I read it all…50 of them, anyway. That said, here are the books that made the biggest impact this year for me.

The Harry Potter Series (book 1-6 completed)

I had to see for myself why Harry Potter is so popular, and finally after finishing six out of the seven books in the series, I finally understood. If you don’t, you should read it. Enough said.

These are great debut novels. It garnered great reviews, and definitely lived up to its name. Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage opened the intersection between love and justice, whereas Cait Flanders’ book shed light into the world of consumerism and personal finance. Finally, Cary & Kyle’s New Minimalism is a short and beautiful book about decluttering and organizing filled with anecdotes and a discussion of mindsets, which was very helpful for me.

These ones were surprisingly good, not that I expected it to be. Gail Honeyman’s story about a young, sad, boring millennial with no friends proved to be anything but. Twists and turns later, you’ll find out the real truth about Eleanor. Laura Vanderkam’s book might’ve had some things I wasn’t keen on, but in general, she made some really good points about how we can all make the best of the time that we have by simply reframing our way of thinking and prioritizing. Finally, as far as memoirs go, The Glass Castle is truly astounding. Jeanne Walls’ story is an amazing story about survival, hope, and family.

These ones are true, deep and personal. It definitely opened my eyes in certain areas. Sherman Alexie’s is a mixture of poetry and prose, but it was still very good. Susan Cain’s Quiet shed light into the power of introverts and helped me see that being an introvert isn’t such a bad thing. Finally, Daniel Pink’s Drive talks about motivation in such a phenomenal way that I haven’t read about anywhere else.

And finally, my top two favorites of the year….Tara Westover’s childhood is the kind of crazy childhood that I can never fathom and to go into her world was beyond amazing. And Daniel’s book made me think much deeper about the concept of time, and as a result, I learned things that I never knew or thought about.

Year in review: On learning to let things go

This is a first in a series of anecdotes I’m going to write about the year that was 2018.

If you know me well, you’ll know that I am a photography enthusiast. I’ve always steered towards the creative side, always have a desire to create something, but my enthusiasm, shall we say, for taking photos didn’t really take off until I was pregnant with my first child and got my first iPhone.

Fast forward several years later, I have another kid…and mountains of photos under my belt. I never deleted them. Instead, I accumulated photos the same way that a hoarder accumulates things–pile them on top of each other, until the space became unrecognizable.

My “space” in this case, was my iPhone storage, and cloud storage, and hard drive, and external hard drive. I uploaded my photos into the cloud, and hardly looked at them again. On my phone, I’d regularly look at my photos, but again…I felt a sense of nostalgia towards it, so I couldn’t bear to delete it. Besides, I am also an indecisive person by nature; thus, I couldn’t decide which ones were appropriate to delete.

You can see where this is going.

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I realized it eventually–that I needed to figure out how to let it all go. Not just my photos, but my things in general. My clothing and accessories are minimal in comparison to others, but at the same time, I have a very small space to store my things, so I couldn’t let it accumulate. And yet at one point or another during the year, I felt stifled by all the things I had, clothing mainly.

It’s like a mental game I’ve been playing with myself. I don’t have a lot of money, so I buy used things or things on sale. I grew up with little. These things have memories. Those still fits, etc. The battle continues…every excuse I can think of to not let go.

Sometime at the end of the summer, I finally realized this, and embarked on a journey to finally get rid of all those photos. Sure, I’ve taken a few fantastic ones, but a lot of bad ones too. The first task was to tackle my iPhone albums.

Because I had let it accumulate to over 2000 photos, it became the most exhausting and daunting task–more than I could’ve imagined. I realized I could not complete it in one sitting, so I took breaks and completely removed about 2000 photos on my cell phone in the course of several weeks. Mainly, I backed it up in my Google Photos drive…so many of the bad ones are still there, but out of my phone at least.

Next, I tackled my hard drive and external hard drive. This, admittedly, is still a work in progress as of today, but I feel like I am making progress at least.

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An ode to pictures

I also went through my kids toys, clothing, accessories as well as my own. What resulted, after several weekend afternoons, were several HUGE bags of donation to Goodwill. Again, it was quite exhausting, and I felt a bit ashamed, because it was so much stuff.

What I didn’t expect, however, was the fact that I felt much, much lighter… both physically and mentally, after achieving those two tasks. I was finally letting my nostalgia go, and I realize I can still keep memories in my mind, perhaps write it down somewhere if I want proof later on, but not have it cluttered around my home or electronic devices. I realized that I can actually live with just ten sweaters, five pairs of jeans, seven pairs of socks and ten or less undergarments instead of twenty sweaters, ten pairs of jeans, and mountains of undergarments.

This is what I learned–that I can actually live with less, that I should let go of really old things (just replaced our seven year rug) and introduce new ones if I want to, and I’ll be okay.

Sundays with Grandma, or a tale about a toddler who accepts bribes

My mother is a devout Catholic. This fact has not changed since I was born.

What has changed is the fact that I am no longer a devout Catholic. This fact, by itself, poses a threat to my mother. It’s one of the many things that we disagree about—why I don’t go to church, and why I shouldn’t “abandon” my religion, because after all, I was born into it.

Yes, my mother is one of those people who believe in lifelong loyalty to a religion. I think of it as a supercilious affection to an institution that as of recently, bores deep, dark secrets that nobody can justify other than it being horrendous and traumatic. Aside from that, some might even say that it is cult-like.

But I’m not here to talk about my views on religion, or my experience with it. I can assure you though, that it did not involve any trauma, besides the fact that I was never allowed to choose my religion. Simply put, I was born into it, and thus I must remain in it—that is what my mom believes anyway.

What I am here to say is that my mother has found another contender, a supporter of her religion—my five-year-old daughter—and together, they go to church every Sunday—without me, of course.

This alone is a source of  glee for me. I see it as a win-win, and I can’t wait for Sundays to come, for my mom would show up at 10 a.m. (religiously on time) and take my daughter Lily to church. Afterwards, they’d go to the usual sushi restaurant adjacent to the local Fubonn shopping center in town—a simple conveyor belt style kind of place—and together, they would have sushi for lunch.

But that’s not all. Usually Lily would insist that Grandma, whom she fondly calls “Ba Ngoai” (which means grandma in Vietnamese), take her inside the shopping center, where she can ride those mechanical animals—the ones where you’d put in 50 cents to ride for a few minutes. Then, before they head home, she would also insist that Ba Ngoai purchase another “treat” for her, usually a sweet one, such as these Yan Yan sticks or sweet, crunchy crackers. Sometimes, she’d come home with more than one treat.

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This, I assure you, is no accident. My daughter is the perpetrator of all of these events. You see—many months ago, when my mom suggested that she take Lily to church with her as to get used to our religion—I reluctantly agreed to let Lily go. Little did I know that it would release me of one kid (so I only have my son to watch), and that she would manage to convince my mom to buy her sushi every single time they go to church. Sushi after church is their new ritual.

It’s a fair deal, I think. My daughter is a very smart little girl who can barter better than I can. Like many children, she loves sweet treats. Unlike many children, she also loves sushi. By agreeing to go to church with Grandma, she is in theory getting what she wants while at the same time, my mother gets what she wants—which is to introduce my daughter to Catholicism, and hoping she’ll turn into a lifelong believer.

IMG_6213IMG_6214This morning, when my mom came over to pick Lily up for church, she commented on how much my daughter resembles me when I was her age. This is where I say, “Maybe,” because although Lily holds certain personality traits similar to mine (her shyness, for one), she is still her own person, and we are more different than alike, I think. This morning, she wore this ridiculous white dress with puffer sleeves and a bow tied in the back (similar to a 90s wedding gown), something I hated wearing as a child but was made to wear constantly; Lily, on the other hand, loves dresses of any kind, and she’ll wear them wholeheartedly, especially if it’s one that is gifted from a family member. (No surprise, my mother bought her that dress).

The way I see it—they’re getting quality time together, something I wish I had with my grandparents but unfortunately never did. Because of that, I want my daughter to develop a relationship with my mother. Their time is theirs to decide. I just wish I had the same treatment when I was young. But I also wished that I was smart enough to bribe my own grandmother (or mother) to buy me things that I like when I was little, in exchange for going to church. Perhaps then I might’ve stayed a true lifelong believer.