What’s In A Name?

About a year ago I went on a two week long trip around Europe. The first week focused on the historical and gorgeous corners of Italy and the second week was split up between Switzerland, Paris and London. Italy had special meaning to me, I am Italian and my grandmother emigrated from Sicily with her family when she was young. I have always wanted to see her country and soak myself in my heritage and the experience was more wonderful than I imagined.

As crazy as this sounds, I felt a connection to Italy (Hi, my name is Rachel and I feel connections to countries). I sensed that I fit well there, like a puzzle piece finding its place. The people, the sun, the music, the pace, the foods, the wine and the lifestyle were all inherently me. Then throw in the history, the bricks, the architecture and the streets and it was my dream.

One place in particular in Italy, called Siena, was my favorite. I was only there for a few hours but that was all it took for me to fall in love.  Roger Allam wrote in Players of Shakespeare 2: Further Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, “I took many trips to Siena, and was struck by its beauty, but also by the beauty of the Siennese themselves. They are dark, fierce, and aristocratic, very different to the much paler Venetians or Florentines. They have always looked like this, as the paintings of their ancestors testify. I observed the groups of young people, the lounging grace with which they wore their clothes, their sense of always being on show. I walked the streets, they paraded them. It did not matter that I do not speak a word of Italian; I made up stories about them, and took surreptitious photographs.” This quote captures the creativity that is ignited within you when you walk around this gorgeous town. Whether you like pictures, writing, reading, music or film, Siena  pulls the arts right out of your fingertips.

That is how Siena made me feel. It made me want to feel. It ignited creativity and passion; it draws you into one of its outdoor tables. It romances you with food and wine and encourages you to read and write. It sings you songs with the afternoon air and stirs up your soul. When I think of words, of beauty, of culture and stories, I think of being somewhere in Siena.

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Read With Me- Fall Edition

Fall means coffee, cozy socks, warm blankets and BOOKS. Hundreds of pages filled with gorgeous descriptions of love, passion, food, nature and dynamic relationships. If you know me personally, or not at all, you can probably guess that I love to read. In addition to reading, I love to buy books. I have books coming out of every nook and cranny of my home. They can be found in my laundry room, tucked under my bed, decorating my tables and shelves, in my car and in all of my purses and bags.  So when chilly fall rolls around, I look forward to dark, cozy nights finally getting a chance to curl up and read all the books I have prepared for my hibernation. In the coming months, I plan to read the books below. If you are looking for a good book, read one with me! Or, if you have read one already, let me know how it is!

Liar’s Bench

By: Kim Michele Richardson

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“In 1972, on Mudas Summers’ seventeenth birthday, her beloved Mama, Ella, is found hanging from the rafters of their home. Most people in Peckinpaw, Kentucky, assume that Ella’s no-good husband did the deed. Others think Ella grew tired of his abuse and did it herself. Muddy is determined to find out for sure either way, especially once she finds strange papers hidden amongst her mama’s possessions. But Peckinpaw keeps its secrets buried deep. Muddy’s almost-more-than-friend, Bobby Marshall, knows that better than most. Though he passes for white, one of his ancestors was Frannie Crow, a slave hanged a century ago on nearby Hark Hill Plantation. Adorning the town square is a seat built from Frannie’s gallows. A tribute, a relic–and a caution–it’s known as Liar’s Bench. Now, the answers Muddy seeks soon lead back to Hark Hill, to hatred and corruption that have echoed through the years–and lies she must be brave enough to confront at last.”

Ten Thousand Saints

By: Eleanor Henderson

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“A sweeping, multigenerational drama, set against the backdrop of the raw, roaring New York City during the late 1980s, Ten Thousand Saints triumphantly heralds the arrival a remarkable new writer. Eleanor Henderson  makes a truly stunning debut with a novel that is part coming of age, part coming to terms, immediately joining the ranks of The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Adoption, teen pregnancy, drugs, hardcore punk rock, the unbridled optimism and reckless stupidity of the young—and old—are all major elements in this heart-aching tale of the son of diehard hippies and his strange odyssey through the extremes of late 20th century youth culture.”

Brooklyn

By: Colm Tobin

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“Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.”

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

By: Katherine Boo

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“Katherine Boo, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. As India starts to prosper, the residents of Annawadi are electric with hope. Abdul, an enterprising teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Meanwhile Asha, a woman of formidable ambition, has identified a shadier route to the middle class. With a little luck, her beautiful daughter, Annawadi’s “most-everything girl,” might become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest children, like the young thief Kalu, feel themselves inching closer to their dreams. But then Abdul is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power, and economic envy turn brutal. With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects people to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of uncompromising reporting, carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.”

Rising Strong

By: Berne Brown

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“It is the rise from falling that Brown takes as her subject in Rising Strong. As a grounded theory researcher, Brown has listened as a range of people—from leaders in Fortune 500 companies and the military to artists, couples in long-term relationships, teachers, and parents—shared their stories of being brave, falling, and getting back up. She asked herself, What do these people with strong and loving relationships, leaders nurturing creativity, artists pushing innovation, and clergy walking with people through faith and mystery have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.   Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Our stories of struggle can be big ones, like the loss of a job or the end of a relationship, or smaller ones, like a conflict with a friend or colleague. Regardless of magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness. It’s the process, Brown writes, that teaches us the most about who we are.”

Bel Canto

By: Ann Pratchett

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“Ann Pratchett’s award winning, New York Times bestselling Bel Canto balances themes of love and crisis as disparate characters learn that music is their only common language. As in Patchett’s other novels, including Truth & Beauty and The Magician’s Assistant, the author’s lyrical prose and lucid imagination make Bel Canto a captivating story of strength and frailty, love and imprisonment, and an inspiring tale of transcendent romance.”

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

By: Ransome Riggs

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“A mysterious island.

   An abandoned orphanage.

   A strange collection of very curious photographs.

   It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive. 

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.”

The Life We Bury

By: Allen Eskens

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“College student Joe Talbert has the modest goal of completing a writing assignment for an English class. His task is to interview a stranger and write a brief biography of the person. With deadlines looming, Joe heads to a nearby nursing home to find a willing subject. There he meets Carl Iverson, and soon nothing in Joe’s life is ever the same.

Carl is a dying Vietnam veteran–and a convicted murderer. With only a few months to live, he has been medically paroled to a nursing home, after spending thirty years in prison for the crimes of rape and murder.

As Joe writes about Carl’s life, especially Carl’s valor in Vietnam, he cannot reconcile the heroism of the soldier with the despicable acts of the convict. Joe, along with his skeptical female neighbor, throws himself into uncovering the truth, but he is hamstrung in his efforts by having to deal with his dangerously dysfunctional mother, the guilt of leaving his autistic brother vulnerable, and a haunting childhood memory.

Thread by thread, Joe unravels the tapestry of Carl’s conviction. But as he and Lila dig deeper into the circumstances of the crime, the stakes grow higher. Will Joe discover the truth before it’s too late to escape the fallout?”

An Ode To The Heart

In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens wrote, “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” My heart has been on my mind nonstop in the past few months and this statement about an evolving heart speaks to my soul because it is filled with hope. It insinuates that the suffering we all experience in life is like rough sandpaper smoothing wood into something warm and soft. The suffering hurt us, yes, but for a reason, so we can be shaped and made better.

I think it is of universal consensus that the heart is fueled by love, which both keeps us together and tears us apart at the seams. The heart beats wildly and free to the tune of our passions. The mind counter balances this because the things we love are not always the best things for us. When you think about it, the way the mind and the heart work is always tragic for the heart. The mind has the ability to understand that while something fulfills the heart, it might need to be let go. The heart just feels the pain, regardless of how good or bad something may be for it. If it loves it, it aches in the absence of whatever it feels strongly for.

Women and men go back time and time again to toxic relationships because of the irrational desires of the heart. People fall in love with ideas and dreams and when they don’t come to fruition, their dedicated hearts shatter. When a loved one is lost, each beat of the heart is with such heavy and terrible pain that you begin to think if it stopped beating altogether it would be a gift.

It is in this realization that I have formed an appreciation for my own heart and its ability love again and again despite pain, grief and brokenness. Thinking back on my life reveals so many highs followed by deep and dark lows and yet, the heart prevails each time.

When I was young, my heart was playful and kind. Like most little girls, I idolized my mom and loved animals. I was innocent to the ways of the world, the pain and sorrow that come with age and grief. My heart was fragile and sensitive. Kids can be cruel and with each pebble thrown at my heart, it became more understanding of the need to be strong.

As a teenager, my heart felt every single moment. The highs and lows had my heart on a never ending self-centered roller coaster. The lows were the end of the world and the highs were in the clouds but my heart was selfish. I loved my family and my friends but I was careless with the love others gave me. I never cherished another person’s heart the way I cherished my own wants and desires.

At 17, my heart was shattered for the first time. My world crumbled in a tornado made of bad skin cells known as Melanoma. My body betrayed me and my heart and mind couldn’t wrap itself around the reality of the situation. In the following years, my heart was dark and hateful. It became sad and numb, nothing excited it and nothing hurt it.

At 21, my heart was given an electrical shock when I actually fell in love. The kind of love that is blind and all consuming, the kind where you realize that all the turns of life were planned to bring you to that very person. The type of love where you think even if this doesn’t last forever, the fact that it happened at all is the greatest gift of life. My heart actually exploded during these years.  My heart was winning. My mind told me to be careful, to be realistic, and to even run at times, but my heart was positive that it was going to stay.

My heart broke and healed in the years following, it grew strong, and it loved fiercely and passionately. It fell in love with God, with helping others, with becoming a better person today than yesterday. My heart grew into something good and big. It feels compassion for those in pain and it gets excited for those in joy. It feels everything so deeply that it is easily bruised but never truly broken. It holds other hearts within its walls and it respects that and protects them.

Recently though, my heart has been in a state of constant ache and worry. It runs in circles and never ending bipolar moments. It feels comforted in the company of others, yet uncomfortable. It aches for the past yet yearns for the future. It swells with the constant kindness of others yet is easily upset and irritated. It searches for an antidote yet shuns anything that numbs the pain. But most of all, it survives. Each day, it survives to see the next, to grow stronger and more loving. It never gives up and it never grows cold and for once in my life I don’t find a loving and sensitive heart a weakness. I find it my best strength.

Who I Am

For the past few years of my life, certain characteristics have defined me. For a long while, my relationship defined me. Although I don’t mind being defined by my many loves, I have always rebelled against being defined by another person. I was, and might always be in some minds, “the girl that dated _______.” For others, I might be defined by my passions. I am the girl who works with the homeless, the girl who raises money and awareness for Alzheimer’s. For some, I might be defined by my jobs. I am a writer, the safety girl, an environmentalist.

But who am I really? Underneath my hobbies, my interests and the things I love, who am I? Who are you? Are you defined by your role at home? A wife, a mother, a father, a caregiver or a brother? When you’re introduced, are you someone’s “creative friend “or “the musician.” Have you ever taken the time to think about the labels you’re given? The labels you give yourself?

I have been ripping off labels surrounding me and really getting to the heart of the matter lately. When I am not drenched in love and a relationship, who am I alone? When I am not achieving a personal or professional goal, what is left? When I am not taking care of someone or spending my time giving back to my community, what am I doing?

I am giving because I am a giver. I find immense joy in giving to others. Giving time to organizations that need help, giving money to the sad, lonely looking man on the street corner. Giving a listening ear to a friend wading through pain and joy. I am a giver of gifts, I love to put thought into people and really give a good gift. I am a giver of food. Come to my warm home and sit around my chaotic table. Let me feed you meals made with love and a little too much pepper. I am a giver of hugs. I know that some people are weird about being touched and those people should probably stay away from me. I want to hug you, to hold your hand, to lay my head on your shoulder. I am a giver of prayers. Let me pray for you, even if you have no God. I want to sit quietly for a few moments and pray for you, for your happiness and for your health, to my God.

I am a lover. I am a giver because I am a compassionate lover. I love my family, my friends and even my enemies. I never run out of love or take my love from you, although I am sure, sometimes, it feels like I do. If I love you, I will until I die, in whatever form or fashion I can. Even if I never talk to you again, for whatever reason, know that I still love you. My heart has been touched by so many amazing people and I carry those moments, that love, along forever.

I am a daughter to two beautiful and generous parents. I am their friend, their companion and their family. I would do anything at all for them and I prefer time with them over time with anyone else. I feel blessed that one day, I will be able to take care of them the way they have always taken care of me. I am often seen as their light when in reality, they are mine.

I love to write although I would not call myself a writer. I love to read although I never feel I reach the quota of books necessary to be considered a reader. I like to run but I am definitely not a runner. Two small and furry lives depend solely on me, but I am not a mother. I love God, I go to church, I try to live my life the way He intends, but I am not a great Christian. I love being in a relationship, I love being the woman on the arm of a good and honest man, but I am not a girlfriend.

Sometimes, I don’t know who I am. I know things I love and things I don’t. I know what makes me feel happy and what makes me feel sad. I know that I will chose red wine over white 95% of the time, that I rarely leave my house without lipstick on, that I never think buying a book is a bad decision, that I can listen to Billy Joel sing for hours, that I have literally no idea if I am on the right path or if the things I want in life will ever happen. But each day I become someone new. I try something new and I have a new thought. I realize that yesterday might not have been what I wanted and I change today. I may never be sure who I am exactly. Maybe we never should be so sure of who we are. Maybe we should never stop seeking new corners of our being. Maybe each year we should let new things define us. New people and places, new convictions and passions.

I am not sure but I do know I love who I am. All the many versions and pockets that make me, me. My hobbies change, my job changes, people fall in love with me and out of love with me but I always love me for who I am.