Dear Emma


Dear Emma,

Before you were you, back when you were just a tiny alien-mushy-human-squish. I wrote you letters. I called you “Niecephew” because we didn’t know you were you. I told you how I’d be there for you and what I’d teach you and how well I’d listen. I wrote about what I hoped for you and what you’d be to us and how much we’d love you. But I was wrong.

I was wrong because you far exceed what I imagined you to be. You are quite literally incredible. You lift my soul. I love your smiley face and your smooth forehead, your giggle, and those puffy little feet. Your Bam Bam ponytail and your wobbly practice walk. I love your laugh and the noises you make. I like watching you eat and your happy food dance. I like how you actually “eat your peas one at a time.” I love when you kick your little leggies in a swing or while Momma’s holding you. I can barely handle that you smile and giggle when I arrive to your house–like from a cardiac perspective, I can barely handle it.

Your presence and your splendor have markedly improved my life. I can’t stop visiting you. Your momma says it’s good to have me visit, but I can imagine it’s a lot. I feel drawn to you. Like I must make you laugh. I must make you smile. I need to hold you.

Everyday you’re growing muscles and using brain cells and being amazing. You play peak-a-boo behind the coffee table as you’re doing squats. When you grip the oven handle and dance, you’re working those triceps and forearms. As you roll over Momma and Joe or Dadda or some toy, you’re using those little baby abs.

You look at the world with eyes I envy. Everything is new, everything is interesting, everything matters. Watching you watch anything makes me believe in humanity. I know behind that amazing bouffant there’s a growing brain. You’re taking in knowledge and working it in with what you learned last week, yesterday, and seven minutes ago.

I just need you to know that I am grateful. I am grateful for everything you are. I’m grateful for your joy and innocence, your beauty, vigor, and amusement. I’m grateful to have you as my niece.


Aunt Amandy

It’s Okay to Keep Exhaling

A couple weeks ago, with Morgan, Beth, and Gabby, I attended a “Second Stoop” at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. We were on the twenty-something floor with an insane view of Baltimore. I was less than a week from an egg retrieval and feeling pretty dauntless. If I can swell my ovaries to several times their normal size and have eggs scooped from my body three times, what can’t I do? The show was called: No Limits: Stories about female leadership, creativity, and resilience.

If you do not know what Stoop Stories are, I am so sorry I haven’t gushed about them to you yet (also surprised). They are probably in my top five favorite Baltimore things. There’s one on Thursday at Creative Alliance: Off the Menu: Stories about memorable meals, colorful customers, and our lives in restaurants. You should totally come!

Stoop Storytelling is a movable event that always has a theme. Typically seven people tell seven minute stories (practiced and coached) on that theme and intermission is a chance to put your name in a hat and tell a story that you haven’t prepared or rehearsed. These are the audience stories. The hosts of Stoop Storytelling are two total badasses: Jessica Henkin and Laura Wexler. Unrelated: Laura and her husband have been to my yoga class a few times and this makes me few special.

Chas has told a Stoop before, Shar has, Erin Drew, and probably more people I am forgetting to honor. And I really think that my dad, Sean Gahagan, my omie Vince, Morgan, Tim and Phrank Cyphers, and lots of other people need to tell one. It’s so empowering, even to just watch someone tell one, especially if you really love that person.

So a couple weeks ago, with encouragement from my ladies and the assistance of one Duck Pin Pale Ale, I threw my name in a hat. The result is below. This is the first audio blog!

My Stoop Story

All speakers

Five Strangers Walk into a Bar (by Shar Hollingsworth)

Five strangers walked into a bar on last Friday night.

Actually, let me backup first. Jerry was, apparently, my neighbor. I live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Mt. Vernon in Baltimore City. Jerry lived on the third floor, until he died in his apartment, inside our building on East Read Street.

Few of us knew him and according to his family, Jerry lived a pretty private life. It is actually more accurate to say none, or few, of us knew him until we began to smell his decomposing body. It was a mild smell at first, one that tenants on the third floor would most notice. Sinmi, my new friend thanks to the late, Jerry, states she made her first call to American Management on February 26th, requesting someone to come take a look, or a sniff. Mind you, she made the call on February 26th, meaning this smell had gotten to a point of concern. American Management said they would send someone out.

However, it wasn’t until March 5th that Jerry’s decomposed body was recovered from his apartment on the third floor. Seven days after Sinmi’s first request for action, an additional week that this man’s body was laying in his apartment decomposing beyond the time it could not be detected from the hallway by neighbors like Sinmi. At work, I’m required to respond to my emails within 48 hours, pretty typical protocol. One would hope that an apartment leasing company would have at least slightly similar requirements when a complaint about a foul, death-like smell was made? Maybe respond to that within 48 hours? In a place where people actually reside? Maybe?


This is how I first found out.

We can still smell it in the elevator. And, unsurprisingly, by March 5th the smell had traveled to the fifth floor. In this article from The Baltimore Sun from March 7th, American Management claims that, “death happens.” They claim, “We checked it out, we didn’t find any smell. There was no cause for concern.”

So, Simni and Glen organized and mobilized. Nine people gathered together on a Friday evening at 7:30 for a candle lit vigil to pay respects to Jerry’s life. His family wasn’t able to attend, but they provided us with a handwritten note stating “God Bless you All! For caring!” and hung a couple pictures of Jerry. We lit candles and took some time to share what we knew about Jerry (very little). Then, five out of the nine of us decided to walk over to Spirits for a glass of wine and to get to know each other a little.

Five strangers walked into a bar. It is the beginning of a bad joke, and a night that would turn into something both awful and beautiful in its own very weird way.

Because it’s important to this story let me describe the racial makeup of this group. I am sorry, Derek, but I am going to categorize us as simply “white” or “black.” I know there is so much more to each of us, but… I’m doing it. Two white women (including me) two black men, and one black woman.

Glen (black man) walked up to the bar and ordered a glass of wine. The bartender poured it and then slid it down the bar four feet to the cash register, telling him he could pick it up when he paid. Sinmi (black woman) ordered a glass of wine, same thing. Glass of wine is poured and slid down to the cash register. “Okay,” I think, “Is this the method they use here?” trying to be optimistic. I went next.

Wine poured. The bartender extended her hand and my glass of wine, smiling as she passed it over to me.  

We all exchanged glances and communicated “what the f***?” with our eyes.

Derek (black man) went next. Glass of wine poured and yet again, slid down the bar to the cash register where he can “pick it up when he pays.” At this moment, Derek and I looked at each other and without saying a word communicated, “Oh yea, this is happening. This is what we think it is.”

Kristen (white woman) went next, glass of wine poured and handed directly to her.

Having met one other approximately thirty minutes prior, at a candlelit vigil for our neighbor whose body had been decomposing in our building for weeks, we were all assessing how to respond to and handle this situation.

That hesitation did not last. We sat down and instantly jumped into a dialogue, completely forgoing small talk that might be expected of people who just met one other. We instantly called out the elephant in the room.

White people: Do me a favor and re-read that scenario. Take your ego out of it and tell me what just occurred.

After chatting over one glass of wine, we decided to leave. Sinmi, in all her beautiful, poised, bravery requested to have a private conversation with the owner. Sinmi described what was just experienced and the owner apologized, but in the same breath, and this is my summary of Simni’s recounting to us: “That wasn’t what was happening. I’ve known her for 12 years. I am a gay (white) woman and know what it is like to be discriminated against and would never put someone behind the bar that would act like that. Can you please take my word for it that, THAT wasn’t happening?”


So this woman was basically saying, to another human, “Please trust me that your experiences and what you are feeling did not happen because I have known this woman for 12 years and I, myself, am a gay woman?”

I was acutely aware of the body language of THE bartender who stood watching Sinmi like a hawk. She was outwardly scoffing and rolling her eyes. Hate and anger was flowing off of her. I also observed the owner of the restaurant doing far too much talking, while Sinmi empathetically and patiently nodded her head.

My fellow white people: Shut up and listen. Listen first. Listen to truly listen and hear, not to respond.

We exited the bar, adrenaline pumping, and decided to go somewhere else.

We spent the first thirty minutes or so at The Elephant being charmed by an 18 year old magician, who had been practicing magic for ten years. Sinmi leaned over and whispered to me, “This kid is brave to be so into magic at his age.” Which is true; he was unapologetically loving every moment of his magic trick performance. Kristen, unimpressed, and needing scientific backing for all things, challenged him, prompting laughs from both him and the audience.


(left to right) Me, Sinmi, and the magician.

The magic tricks had taken the edge off of the previous bar’s events and we all transitioned to a small side room with sofas and games to talk. Again, measly small talk that is often expected when people hang out for the first time was not even an option, as Glen asked thought-provoking question after question to us all, he reminded me to, “Keep it 100,” when asking about my biggest culture shock from coming from my rural, primarily white upbringing and to living in Baltimore City.  

Derek spoke about culture shock related to west and east coast living and the tendency we, as humans (and I, in this piece) have done to simply put people in boxes of “white” or “black” when the reality is that we are so much more, he is so much more. He spoke about how this discounts other parts of his identity. As he spoke I thought and challenged myself in my own mind, knowing that this is an error I can sometimes make. Throughout the night, we were all vulnerable and real in our conversations, which just encouraged deeper vulnerability.

We had known each other for about and hour and a half at this point.

Sinmi got up to request a food menu. She walked into the main area to find THE Bartender and THE Bartender’s friend. She walked by and this grown ass woman who, I am guessing is in her 40s, extended her leg and kicked Sinmi in the thigh. Yes, kicked her.

Sinmi came back to our room and described what had just happened, clearly upset, while also showing incredible grace in this situation. Honestly, this woman was pure grace in all of her interactions.

Fast forward about fifteen minutes and Bartender and Bartender’s friend are in our little room in our faces screaming acusatorials at Sinmi. “What is your end game!? What is your end game!?!?” Neither woman was able to elaborate exactly what she meant by this when asked by Glen. Sinmi tried to speak and Bartender looked at her like she was a child, or an animal, and with her finger in her face said, “Shut up. I will get to you.” I tried to say something and her friend turned to me saying, “You. Shut the f*** up.”

So, in my mind at this point I was battling with a couple thoughts. 1.) I’m white, these people are white–what can I do to connect with them and help them see how they are wrong? 2.) How can I be most helpful right now? How can I use my voice, while also not out speaking Sinmi. This black woman, does not need this white woman speaking for her, but, how can I speak with her?  How can I both face my own participation in whiteness while also challenging mind-sets and and people that prop up this whiteness? 3.) I found myself suddenly in the back and was standing idly behind Glen and Derek. I did not want to be passive in this. I aligned my body physically next to Sinmi, but also a step behind her. She has a voice and was using it, I didn’t need to speak over her, but I did want her to feel my physical support and let her know that bitches better believe I am ready to step in.

Bartender and Bartender’s friend were  not listening to anything anyone is saying. Apparently Bartender’s friend is married to a black man. Yes, she shared that.

White people: Save your, “I have a black friend” comments. Good for you. Good for me. Do not respond to someone challenging or questioning your actions when it comes to race or white privilege with a resume type response of all the charitable work you do (which Bartender went into an extensive rant about) and how many black men (or women) you have dated.  I’m watching these women do this and thinking “Good GOD, white people. What are we doing??”

Derek looked at us all and made a comment along the lines of, “These women must really hate themselves. Let’s take a moment and just feel for them.”

Drop the freaking mic.

My mind was taken to James Baldwin’s, The Fire Next Time,  and a line in his book that I’ve grappling with for a while, “White people…have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

As these women were talking at us and not with us in any way, I was struck by how much hate and anger was coming off of them. That’s a miserable way to live.

We left. We chose to walk away without resolution, apology, or any sort of acknowledgment that Bartender and Bartender’s friend are blatantly wrong. We left because three out of five of us were black and think about it: There’s a crowd of people in the streets at midnight, profanities are flying, yelling, fingers waving in faces, (all of which primarily are coming from them) and if the cops showed up, who would be questioned first?

White people: What are you, we, me doing to learn how to accept and love ourselves and each other WHILE also acknowledging this whiteness that we are part of, that we participate in, and have benefited from?  Then, and this is the important part, what are we doing to remove our egos, remove our defenses and link that to how a very intentional set of structures, systems, and institutions allows this privilege to continue? You are fabulous, I am fabulous, and we have benefited from our whiteness. We continue to benefit from our whiteness. Let’s love ourselves and each other while also honestly unpacking that privilege.

What if I told you that Sinmi was a white woman and Bartender is a black woman? Would it have been handled differently? Would you think about this woman being kicked as she walks through the bar differently?  

The five of us: Derek, Sinmi, Kristen, Glen, and I walked the 0.1 miles home to our apartment building. We walked past the remnants of the small vigil for Jerry, whom we never really knew. Derek and I walked Sinmi, Kristen, and Glen to their doors on the third floor where we all hugged goodnight. Derek and I continued to the fifth floor where we, too, hug goodnight and retire to our apartments.

Five strangers walked into a bar, stir up some shit, acknowledge and address blatant racism, show incredible grace and love, ask questions and listen to each other, and then walk home as friends. Jerry, although we didn’t know you, your impact is still felt by the neighbors who rest their heads near where you rested yours one final time. Thank you, Jerry, for your patience, for these new friendships, for pushing us to face difficult conversations, and for one hell of a strange story. 

Shar Hollingsworth is a radiant being. She grew up in Garrett County, Maryland, earned a BS in Psychology from Towson University and an MS in counseling psychology from Frostburg State University. She has worked as a mental health counselor, addiction counselor, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer for 27 months in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), located in Southern Africa. She moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a short time after her service and then to Baltimore where she works as the Scholar Support Coordinator at Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School. She enjoys time with her family, laughing loudly, reading, yoga, athletics of all kinds, snuggling with her cat Raffi, travel, humanity, and learning. Should you wish to comment on her story, you may reach her via email at, CC me (Amandy), I’m curious!


A Hard Thing We’re Not Supposed to Talk About

This story is purposefully not date-stamped because this piece is not about a sprint. This piece is about a marathon. And while I am exploding with the need to share this story, there’s a lot about it I cannot and do not want to discuss, including where we are with this and why we are in this at all.

I wrote, because I needed to, and because I’ve been writing it in my head and my heart for a long time. I also think this is a story that’s under-told and it’s important that the world (or at least my list of a few dozen readers) knows that things that are easy for some, sometimes even too easy, are not easy for others. There are a lot of women I did not know I shared this journey with until I opened up about it (do I sound a little like a contestant on The Bachelor?). What at first feels like the closest secret, gradually, as I shared with women I knew, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t talking about it before. So again, no wheres, no whys, and if you work in health insurance, just close the tab right now. This is not that interesting. Seriously, go away. 


It’s 6:36 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am pulling into a sparse parking lot. I see another woman about my age in a car a few rows away so I rush even more quickly to grab my waiting gear: lap top, water, and coffee. I head toward the glow, yank open the door, too rushed to hit the blue opener button, and power walk to the steps inside which I bound two and three at a time. I throw open the door on the third floor, and see that I am fifth in line.

The office doesn’t open until 7 o’clock and I am 24 minutes early, but I am fifth in line. I settle into my spot against the wall and begin attacking the day’s emails.  I’m here, sitting on a well-worn carpet next to a metal box for disposed needles. When the desk-nurse-person-lady arrives a few minutes later, she walks past our row of female desperation and says nothing. She unlocks the door without greeting us (she will say hi if it’s Friday) and lets us into the next waiting chamber, where we will sign our names and write our phone numbers, in order of arrival. Although it disgusts me, I also almost enjoy her lack of grace because it proves everything I feel about these types of situations when I’m feeling pessimistic. We are not unique. We are all just letters and numbers on a list. And they put on Today’s Lite (sic) 101.9 to drown out our yawns, sighs, and hushed conversations with our partners. When “Moves Like Jagger” comes on again, I consider taking the knock-off Bose and throwing it down the stairwell. Nevertheless, she persisted.

So we wait, with drawn faces, avoiding eye contact, because this is private, we suffer alone, our journey is our own, and IVF is not something you’re supposed to talk about or share. I think in this case, and other situations similar, silence begets silence and because no one talks about it, no one talks about. What I have found having been on this road for a good chunk of time, is kind of the other side of what the desk-nurse-person-lady makes me feel. Yes, I am not unique and my letters and numbers might be on that list, but I’m also not the only one. And while we don’t talk or really interact at all–I’ve done way more eavesdropping than I have actual conversing–the ladies in the hallway and in the waiting room, we all have one another. Our co-presence proves that we are not alone, that this has all been done before and it’s worked before and it’s been painful and exhausting and so draining and unpredictable, before. But there are also babies’ photos on the board in the back and notes I try to steal a moment to read from women whose feet occupied the same metal stirrups mine do now.


There are many reasons that women go through IVF. This is hardly a single story. 

But what we don’t have in common pales in comparison to what we do have in common. When I look around the waiting room and see couples and women alone, I know that each of the women, between 4 and 8 p.m. every night, is rubbing her belly with alcohol preps. She takes the G one out of the fridge and clicks the right dose because it’s a multi-use pen. Subcutaneously, in it goes. I prefer to do the M one first because it hurts more. With the M one, she has to uncap and then rub the tops with another prep. She uses the Q cap to open the vial, draw out the liquid and use the Q cap to put the liquid in with the powder. She draws the powder and liquid mixture back out into the syringe. Then, subcutaneously back into the fold she creates in her belly. When she first starts doing it, it’s hard not to bruise. (The very first week my belly looked like an unpeeled, unrolled plum skin.) When she’s farther along, she adds the C one. This one is the worst. There’s a syringe pre-loaded with liquid she has to use a needle straw to put the liquid into powder, mix that, suck it back up the needle straw, switch the needles out in the syringe and then finally, into the belly. 

If there’s a woman in the next phase in the waiting room, I know what she’s doing every night, too. She’s slapping estrogen patches on her sides every other day, ripping them off, leaving goo behind because it’s impossible not to, and then she’s adding more where she can’t see any goo. She’s creating a sort of gray graph paper all over her abdomen. The patches make her feel crazy, but she’s not sure if it’s just this whole thing making her feel crazy. Tears come at random and so does anger. She will keep adding patches until she’s 11 weeks pregnant. Then, maybe, she gets to be like the rest of humanity?

She and we are all navigating this world of shots and hormones, full bruisy or sticky bellies, confusing feelings, hope and not-hope.


I appreciate when they summon me by my first name. “Ms. Amanda” is also kind of sweet. I’ve waited my turn and it’s time to enter the caverns of the office. I confirm my name and date of birth for the 2230948th time in the past year. I’ve watched that “age” field rise. I undress from the waist down, cover myself in my paper sheet, and saddle up. There are several doctors who could walk in. I have my faves and I certainly have my least faves. Today’s doctor walks in (she’s fine, tiny, young, a little aggressive with the pressure), asks me how I am, and I remark that several of the doctors in this practice are pregnant, including her. We joke that she should share the wealth. It’s not actually funny, though.

I slide down the bed and she tells me that I will feel her hand and up goes the camera. We look at my eggs on the screen as she measures each of them with clicks and strokes as a nurse assistant records their sizes on a sticky note. I imagine a wall somewhere in the back with all of these sticky notes peppering the plaster like a science fiction fertility rainbow shrine. It’s clear my eggs need a couple more days even though I feel like I’m carrying a Tupperware full of jello in my belly. We finish and I head downstairs to the lab to get my blood drawn. Unfortunately, the lab just got an electronic check-in system. This means that most days I have to wait for 1-3 elderly people to figure out what a touch screen is. I have a favorite phlebotomist, she, like the doctors upstairs, is also pregnant. She listens to gospel in the mornings and always checks on me.

The office will call me later in the day with my blood results, which might as well be in Japanese, and to give me my injection instructions and when to return. I always let this go to voicemail out of fear that I will get nervous and forget the directions if I take the call live.


There are several things comprised in IVF in which I’d never thought I’d be skillful: giving myself shots, having my blood regularly drawn, surgeries, being completely out of control of my own body, forgoing exercise, anesthesia, and visiting into a medical office 2-3 times per week and being late for work on the days I have appointments. 

If IVF were up to the man, I think it would be a public topic. I think men would speak out about their journeys and discuss their difficulties. I think they’d qualify their tears and explain away. Fox News would report about how hard it is for men to go through infertility treatments and that it hurts their penises and their egos. But the world will never know. Because fertility control and infertility treatments are all up to women. And we can do hard things and keep them to ourselves. Although, we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean we can’t. Right?

But men do have a role, if they choose to accept it. And not everyone in this situation has a partner like I do. Chas comes to every appointment and brings our folder of paperwork, which started out the thickness of a quarter and is now more of a tree trunk. Sometimes the nurses make fun of him “doing his homework.” He writes down the questions we have, because I am usually too emotional or weird to even remember what it is we need to know. He asks them to repeat answers, he pushes for me to receive the best care. Sometimes when Chas says something to the doctor, I realize how much better equipped he is for the science aspects of this than I am and that in some ways, he’s better at caring for me than I am for myself. I’ve joked that he’s my manager. Whatever he is, he’s a good one.

Now that I am part of this world, I feel pride when I hear about well-known IVF-ers. Becoming by Michelle Obama is next on my nightstand but I already feel pride that she spoke about about her own IVF journey. This article makes the point I keep thinking about too. IVF is a luxury for those who have the insurance to cover it or, god knows how, the money to pay for it themselves. Because education and economic inequality are often closely tied, this, from the same article, struck me in particular: “The education gap is equally stark. While 56% of adults with a postgraduate degree say that they have either undergone infertility treatment or know someone who has, only 20% of those with a high school degree or less report experience or knowledge of infertility treatment.”

I know that I am fortunate that I am able to do this and on the days I feel like the fattest tub of lard and that this is never going to result in anything, I have to remember that I have an option and not everyone does. I have a support system who will listen to me and that same support system respects that Chas does not ever want to talk about it.

When I look back at this time in five years, a decade, a few decades, I hope I remember only that I was stronger than I thought I was, that I can do hard things, and that it was all totally worth it. 


Those Who Can Read, Should

“The person who won’t read has no advantage over the person who cannot read.”

Possibly written by Mark Twain, possibly not. The internet is a breeding ground for misattributed quotes. John Oliver covered this one week on his show Last Week Tonight and even created a website for “Definitely Real Quotes” which are just the opposite. 

Whoever said this first, and let’s be honest, it was probably written as “man” and not “person,” I could not agree more. The other night at the Y, I was on the elliptical machine losing track of time while reading. I use the elliptical machines without the moving arms so I can hold my book and move my legs and I can just plow through literature, and plow, I do.


Just yesterday, I finished The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America by D. Watkins. It’s an essay collection by a drug-dealer-turned-teacher-and-writer. He’s from Baltimore, still lives in Baltimore, and he’s the truth. Watkins has made it his mission to help lift up impoverished communities in Baltimore and his method is equal parts simple and complex, crazy and the most sane: literacy.

In the chapter titled “My Neighborhood Revolution,” Watkins tells of NFL star, Dexter Manley, who made it through high school and college before he played for Washington, never having learned to read. Side note: I crawled down the Dexter Manley rabbit hole and it’s basically the Little Mermaid’s cave. This article from 1987 is such a stark contrast from this one written in 2015. But wow, is he an interesting guy! Watkins shares the story of a friend who asks him to read a letter his daughter wrote to him because although this man was a full-grown, fully employed adult, he couldn’t read his daughter’s words. Watkins returns several times to the sad statistic that only 7% of 8th grade boys in Baltimore City Public Schools are proficient in reading. Go back and read that sentence again. Watkins talks of his college students telling him that same old, tired old thing I hear so often, “Reading is boring.”

Battling the chorus of “Reading is boring” is demoralizing. What I want to say is, “You sound like an idiot.” But usually I am talking to children when I hear it and we’re not allowed to say idiot, so my go-to defenses include, “Then you’re doing it wrong,” or, “Well you just haven’t found the right book yet.” Sometimes I throw in, “Reading is all things, so if you don’t like reading, you don’t like anything.”

Obviously I am preaching to the choir here because you are reading this so as you know, reading is gaining perspectives. It’s travel, self improvement, communication, learning, brain-expansion, creativity. Reading is meditation, it is peace, it’s a brain-and-heart-quieter.

Sometimes after reading, I just need some quiet time. After a few of the D. Watkins chapters, I just needed to sit in silence as my brain turned and flipped and readjusted what I had just read with what already exists in there. I can feel myself learning and sharpening and my mind opening. It’s just so damn satisfying.

With that, I give you a very incomplete list of reading recommendations. This is not a list of my favorite books necessary, just a list of some I’ve loved that span different genres. I owe this list to the existence of Goodreads because without it, I wouldn’t remember 10% of this. (Stars* indicate book club books from the past. My book club is in two words: the best.)

  • The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg. A memoir about growing up in rural Alabama by the most painterly wordsmith I’ve ever encountered. Bragg is my writing role model.
  • Wonder* by R.J. Palacio. A young adult book about a boy with facial deformity, this book makes you want to be a better person and you can read it in about 2 hours.
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. A dystopian novel about a change in the tilt of the earth and all of the effects of it.
  • Americanah* by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love this author! I saw her speak at Baltimore Book Festival and she has as much presence, poise, and splendor in person as she does on paper. This was such an enthralling tale that proves that the story of Africans in America is anything but singular. Also, this book has a few scenes set in Baltimore–bonus.
  • The Gay Talese Reader by Gay Talese. Widely regarded as one of the best creative nonfiction writers ever, this collection begins with his most famous work, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” From that first piece which earns its clout, this set of articles never stops being entertaining.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. The (now famous) story of Henrietta Lacks’ ancestors and Henrietta’s cells which have been used to cure, heal, research, and more since her death from cancer in 1951. Her family continues to live in poverty and no one had ever given consent for the use of Henrietta’s cells. If you aren’t obsessed with Deborah by the end of this book, then you have no heart.
  • Every Day by David Levithan. The main character in this book wakes up in a different body every single day. This was one of the most unique fictional situations I’ve ever read about.
  • The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Somewhat autobiographical story of growing up in the south. Among my favorites I’ve ever read.
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Hands down one of the funniest books I have ever read. Bryson and a pal make their way through parts of the Appalachian Trail in this true story. Somehow it manages to be laugh out loud funny.
  • The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan. A collection of essays and short stories by a Yale grad who died before this was published when her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel three days after their college graduation. An incredible tragedy for obvious reasons but also because she’s a really great writer. I loved both the fiction and the nonfiction.
  • House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. This book is tragic, know that going in. But what an onion-peeling it is! Tears and all. The intertwined stories challenge you to see two completely conflicting perspectives as almost equally valid.
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey. I’ve actually read this twice. She’s hilarious and just the realist.
  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Did you have to read this in school? I did. But I didn’t appreciate it until I taught it myself. This book rotates perspectives among the Civil War generals in both armies throughout the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. While Shaara has to rely on what exists historically about these men, he does an incredible job filling in the blanks.
  • The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir* by D. Watkins. Watkins’ story of transforming from a drug dealer into a university professor.
  • She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. This is a hunker but it moves quickly. The story of a girl perpetually angry at her own body. A really incredibly told coming of age.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is a young adult book told from the perspective of a 9th grader deep in depression. And I know that doesn’t sound like a positive but the empathetic power of this book is so real.
  • Brain on Fire* by Susannah Cahalan. A nonfiction book about a New York Post writer whose life completely unfurls due to a rare and absolutely sudden condition. Her unraveling is scary, shocking, and really entertaining.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A letter from father to son. Truly gorgeous but also extremely though-provoking and emotional. Baltimore-born and raised!
  • The Husband’s Secret* by Lianne Moriarty. I will read her books until she stops writing them. She has this crazy way of tackling really heavy subjects with just a touch of humor. Always a twist, always page turners. This is my second favorite of hers, after Big Little Lies which you should read, before watching…too late?
  • The Nightingale* by Kristin Hannah. We went through a few months during which my book club did a lot of World War II. This was in that spike. A Holocaust novel that will remain with you forever. (I have lots of other Holocaust recommendations too.)
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham. This became a movie starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and more luminaries of cinema. While the move is excellent, the book is better. The stories woven into this inter-connected tale include that of a writer dying of AIDS, writer Virginia Wolf, and a few others. A fast read that spans generations.
  • Educated* by Tara Westover. My favorite recent read. Tara is the last of seven children raised by Mormon parents who are conspiracy theorists and extremists. Tara does not know her birthday, does not enter a classroom until she’s 17, and spends most of her childhood working in her dad’s scrap yard. She ends up at Harvard. The book tells that journey.

Is reading the answer to all social ills? Certainly not directly. But indirectly, I would argue that yea, it could be. And for people who’ve got life generally figured out: job, life, family, friends, maybe reading doesn’t seem like it’s largely essential, like it won’t solve the smaller problems we have. I’d argue though, that it might. And that from reading, we can all grow. We can all learn to see other perspectives, to open our brains up, to just sit and think, to paint pictures in our heads, to exercise our most important muscle. Because you can. Read.