My Book Club: A Love Letter
This January will mark the third anniversary of the book club I started. Saying “I started” is filled with all sorts of emotion, and I say it with only a small amount of ego.
Yes, I did start it. Meaning: I put out a call for people in my life who wanted to join together as readers once a month. And my friends – ranging from people I saw every day to people I hadn’t seen in years – rallied and responded with unbridled enthusiasm.
But while I may receive credit for starting this grand adventure, I cannot take credit for sustaining it. That is something we have done together – each of us – as a whole.
We met on a wet January evening at my house — all of us gathered together for the first time and me acting as excited host. But my nervousness was palpable. Everything I had was on the line here. These were my friends, people from my life – very few of them (with the exceptions of my school colleagues) knew each other – and I was cramming them all together in a room and asking for them to make instant connections. We do this when we start dating someone…introduce them to our friends and hold our breath. Like each other. Like each other. Like each other.
Even at that point in the process I had done a small amount of editing – inviting some and not others, looking at the group dynamic and making my predictions. To say that this group was calculated is not entirely dishonest. But it’s not entirely honest either. With care, I crafted, but then I had to wait and see. The best laid plans, as they say.
The energy that night was good. But tentative. We did not know yet who we were as a group; we had not yet defined our roles. There was some uncharacteristic wall-flowerness, episodes of too much imbibing, small moments of pretentiousness followed by someone else’s raw honesty. Judgments were forming, people were assessing, “Who are these people? Can I like them?”
We lost two members immediately.
I wish I could say that it didn’t hurt a bit, when my friends approached me, both with the excuse that time was this monstrous hurdle that could not be overcome. It was a reason I understood, even if my immediate thought was to assume it false. But “no time” is an unarguable reason. I couldn’t say, “Yes. You have the time.” I could not say, “Do you want to discuss schedules? Do you need me to itemize my day? How can you not have time for this?” And at that exact moment, what I really would have been asking was, “You don’t have time for me?” because I felt so much ownership at this point in the Book Club’s success.
But I said I understood. And they didn’t return.
Now, in many ways, those we lost, only after the first few months, are part of Book Club lore.
“Remember so-and-so?” we ask. “Oh yes!” is the reply.
Because sometimes we forget that it wasn’t always just us. Us: This group of women forged from a love of books has now become something so amazing and incredible that we are fiercely protective and loyal of what we have. Book Club started as mine, a project that I so desperately needed, a group to call my own. And now Book Club is a masterful demonstration of what can happen when strong women unite together in friendship.
* * *
“Oh,” one of my non-book club friends, an outlier, someone on the fringe of my life, says to me one day. “So, it’s not really a book club. You just sit around and drink and bitch and the one thing you have in common is that occasionally you read the same thing?”
I had been bragging.
That was my undoing.
Explaining the magic of my Book Club is not an easy task.
If you wax poetic long enough about something people either get tired and annoyed or they want to know why they can’t be a part of it. And is there ever an easy way to say, “I like you a lot…as a matter of fact…you’re amazing. But, you see, Book Club is mine. Not mine per se. But ours. Book Club is ours. And we’re not really…you know…taking new people”? No. There isn’t.
Because exclusivity sounds bitchy. And they are right – it does sound that way.
But bitches, we aren’t.
No we are teachers, counselors, librarians, stay-at-home-moms, vice-presidents of companies, and executive directors of non-profits. We waitress and run side businesses, we run marathons and do Cyclocross and Hood to Coast and play women’s football. We are single. Married. Divorced. Remarried. Engaged. We have kids. Step-kids. Adopted kids. We are childless. We are Christian and we are agnostic. We are quiet. We are loud. We are stubborn and we are easy-going. We are vegetarians. We are carnivores. We are amazing bakers and cooks – and I don’t think there is an opposite to that…I think we actually are all genuinely great cooks. We are voracious readers and sometimes readers. Our age range spans over a decade. We are tall, short, blonde, brunette, redheaded.
We are not casual heroin users, thank God. (And I apologize for an inside joke. About heroin. But I figured if I got one joke, it might as well be that one.)
In short: We are a varied group with different personalities and outlooks on life. And Book Club brought us together. We’d like to think that what we have is so profoundly special that it cannot be replicated, but we know that isn’t true. Yes, we appreciate its rareness, but we also know that we have a lot to teach.
We’ll start with what Book Club taught us.
1. What happens in Book Club stays in Book Club. (Except, I suppose everything I’m blogging about. But. Um. Sorry.)
Yes, yes, it’s trite and cliché and belongs to Vegas and Bachelor parties and there’s that Fight Club version too. But I think what it captures and highlights is a place to feel safe. We need a place to discuss our marriages, our children, work, our frustrations, and our in-laws. We need a place to finally tell someone about that drunken night in college without feeling judged and while also knowing that the world doesn’t have to know – what you share is safe here. YOU are safe here.
2. Admit you were wrong/an asshole/drunk/lazy/boneheaded.
We are not perfect people. We have baggage and vices and fears and worries. Some of us are kinda crazy (me) and neurotic and paranoid (me) and self-obsessed (ME!); okay, no, but we are HUMAN. And we say stupid things and wreck people’s houses (not me and also me) and sometimes throw Styrofoam balls at people’s heads and really hurt them (me). And sometimes we lie about taking the bar exam (me again). And our Book Club would have fallen to pieces a long time ago if we each didn’t say things like, “I was wrong. And stupid. And I’m sorry.” We each are all really good at admitting fault and saying we’re sorry. There’s no pretense here and no ego – we like each other too much to play games. When we screw up, we admit it. It’s a simple, but effective way to continue to like each other. “I’m sorry for eating all the faces off the owls.” (That one was not me. Finally.)
3. Talking about books is ALWAYS talking about life and vice versa.
As an English teacher, I try to explain this often – books provide a universal glimpse into people’s lives. So, when people try to get on my case for the percentage of time we spend talking about the books we read vs. the time spent talking about things in our life related to the books we read, I get all agitated. Books are about how we feel when we read them, what the language does to us, what stories they stir in us. When we talk about life, we’re still talking about the books – when we pause to tell stories, it’s still about the books. Our shared experiences during the weeks we are away from each other is the experience of reading something with someone else. And that, alone, can be good enough. Also, you can’t spend an entire Book Club talking about “The Woman in White” if only TWO PEOPLE read it. But you can shoot champagne corks out of the window on NW 23rd toward pedestrians and talk about THAT forever!
4. Book Club is not about meeting once a month. It’s about being there always.
In order to be a successful group, we need to be there for each other. During our tenure, there have been new babies, weddings, engagements. And we have encountered loss. Grief. Heartache. And whether we are rejoicing or mourning, we give. We give our time and our resources, food, and bottles of wine, and books and love. We give encouragement and advice and support. We care for each other like family – because we have become family. That’s how we look at it, how we thrive. Not just “good friends”, but family. We know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that in both joy and sorrow we have a group to call on for help. Again, there is comfort and safety in that – knowing that there are people out there who care, fully, completely, and without reservation. Some people THINK that they are like this — think that they give, think that they are supportive friends. No. I’m talking self-less…pure and simple. There’s a difference between just being a good giver and giving everything you have. We give everything we have. Happily.
5. Sometimes you need to play badminton while holding a glass of wine.
Or: Sometimes you need to laugh. And have fun and be goofy. If you can’t laugh uncontrollably – if the people in your Book Club haven’t reduced you to nothing but that primal fear of peeing your pants – then you should reevaluate your friends. It’s that calculated trifecta of intelligent communication and pure goofiness and genuinely taking care of each other. Which…I’m beginning to realize could be a good recipe for book club success. I could write a book about it! And my book would even include a little graphic.
Lastly, I offer you this picture of us on our LAST anniversary nearly a year ago with the author Deborah Reed.
When I told her, awkwardly, in correspondence that we were really an amazing Book Club, unlike any she has met, she said that was sure she’d love us! But I know she was thinking, “Sure. It’ll be okay, but it’s just another book club.” Deborah — an occasional reader of this blog — will be the first to tell you, as an outsider, that there is something special here.
I think it has to do with the triangle.
I’ll go trademark it now.