Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be here today with Rachel Levy Lesser who's the author of Life’s Accessories: A Memoir (and Fashion Guide). A former marketing and PR exec for magazines and nonprofits, Rachel has written four nonfiction books. Her essays have been published on Glamour, Parenting.com, Kveller, Modern Loss, Scary Mommy, and other sites. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she received her MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.
Welcome, Rachel. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Rachel Levy Lesser: Thanks for having me, Zibby.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Life’s Accessories is about? What inspired you to write it?
Rachel: Life’s Accessories is a coming-of-age memoir told in fourteen essays which come together as fourteen chapters to tell a complete story. Each essay is represented by an item of either clothing or jewelry or an accessory or something in my closet in my life that serves as a lens into the experience that I've gone through, the lesson I've learned, the people I've met, and my life. Included also in the book at the beginning of each chapter/essay is a sketch of each accessory. They did a really good job with the sketches.
Zibby: Give me an example. You're sitting here today with the Elsa Peretti heart necklace on, to which a chapter is devoted.
Rachel: Yes, I wore it today for you. There are a couple of examples. The Elsa Peretti’s a good example. The Elsa Peretti heart necklace, which a lot of women and girls our age had, was given to me on my sweet sixteen. I used it to tell the story of how I wore it every day throughout my teenage years wishing and hoping for that boyfriend to come along. The boyfriend finally did come along in college. Then, like many college boyfriends or high school boyfriends, he ended up breaking my heart. That story is told in the book through the heart necklace. It’s a story that so many people can relate to on so many different levels. I write about the black nylon Kate Spade bag that a lot of women had in the nineties and how that represented my want-to-be-Mary Tyler Moore, working-girl image and how it helped me deal with the crazy bosses I dealt with working in a magazine company and the highs and lows of that, so things like that.
Zibby: I love it. How did you come up with this idea?
Rachel: This is actually my fourth book. I've been thinking about it for a while. Although this is my fourth book, this is probably the book that I've had in me the longest. It took me a while to get all these thoughts and feelings and experiences out of my head and onto paper. Perhaps I had to go write those first three books first. I also, in the process of writing the other books and writing essays for various publications and for my own blog, discovered that I have this weird memory to remember everything I ever wore at different points in my life, and other people too. I realized I could use this weird memory of mine to serve as an outline to tell this coming-of-age story. Once I had the idea for it, the accessories and the fashion items just kept coming. I was able to create this life story, which is really my life story. The way it’s represented in the accessories made it doable for me, and interesting.
Zibby: It’s such a particular time and place story. You tapped into my childhood too.
Rachel: Yes, so many people.
Zibby: You bring it right back. It’s almost like watching a movie of a time where -- my memory is not as good as yours, but it comes back. It’s like a brownout or something. When someone mentions it, the memory comes back, but I can't pull it up. That's what your book did for me in a way.
Rachel: A lot of the early readers have told me that too.
Zibby: Quickly, your other books.
Rachel: My first book is a memoir. They're all in the nonfiction genre. I'm trying to maybe move into fiction later. The first book is called Shopping for Love. That really came out of -- I wrote it very soon after my mother passed away from cancer. She died fifteen years ago. She was fifty-seven. I was twenty-nine. I had a brand-new baby. I was a complete mess. A mess is an understatement. I was going to see a therapist. The therapist recommended that I start to write down my thoughts and feelings and memories of my mom because I was such a mess. At that time, I was working in marketing and PR. I wasn't even an author yet. All of these thoughts and feelings and memories of mom, a lot of them came together in memories of us shopping together. I developed a thesis. I always like to have a thesis from writing in school. The thesis was that shopping helped to extend the length of my mother’s life. She fought cancer for six years. She had this very virulent disease where most people only live for six weeks. I do think that, not just the shopping, but the being with her family, the hope for the future really helped her along. I went back and revisited all these shopping experiences with her.
My second book is a children’s book. People always ask me, “Are you going to write another children’s book?” I really would like to. I just have to get there. That came out of real life too. This was years ago. My daughter, whose name is Rebecca, came home from school one day when she was in preschool and said, “I have three Dylans in my class.” I thought that was the funniest thing to say. We had seven Jens or Lisas. Then she talked about Jordan the boy and Jordan the girl. I started thinking about all these names and about her name. She's named for my mom. From that, I developed this narrative in my head, and then on paper, about a little girl named Rebecca Romm who doesn't like her name. She has to do a project for school about where her name comes from. She does all this research. She learns that everybody's named for something or someone. There's some historical stuff in there. She learns to eventually love her name. I don't know if the third book...
Rachel: [laughs] Another book. The third book was also many years in the making, a nonfiction that came out of a lot of conversations I was having with my girlfriends. A lot of us worked either full time or part time out of the house. We ended up employing babysitters or nannies to watch our kids. We used to always say, “You can't make this up.” We started to discover, particularly me, that I ended up in many ways working for my babysitters because I just wanted them to stay so that I could go to work and do my job and my kids could be okay. The stuff you put up with from a babysitter or a nanny working for you, you would never put up with that kind of stuff in an office environment. Some of it was funny. Some of it was crazy. Some of it was really heartfelt in terms of the relationships that the mothers develop with the babysitter because it’s not like a regular person who you work with in an office. I interviewed fifteen women across the country, working moms, about their experiences and put them together to tell a narrative.
Zibby: That's awesome. I could not live without my babysitters. I love them.
Rachel: I know. My kids are older now, so I don't have that. We still keep up with our babysitters. We always joke that one day my kids are going to babysit for their kids.
Zibby: Aw, that's so sweet. Oh, my gosh. Let's go back to Life’s Accessories. Hearing about your books gives you a better picture of who you are, which is why I wanted to have you talk about them. You talked about, in Life’s Accessories, in the beginning, that you were this, which I find hard to believe, outcast, loner-type girl in your new school. You went to Lawrenceville. You had come from a very small Quaker school that you felt very comfortable in. You go to this new environment and felt like a fish out of water. You described how you have to adopt the “uniform” that everybody there -- which was Laura Ashley long skirts and Sebago penny loafers that you put real pennies into, J.Crew cable-knit sweaters. I would say L.L.Bean sweaters and Blucher moccasins were part of the uniform for my school. I wanted to know, did changing your outside, the packaging of you, actually help you fit in better? Did it just make you feel better? Would you handle that situation the same way today?
Rachel: It’s funny. People do say that, “I can't imagine you being a loner like that.” I don't feel that way now in my grown-up life. I feel like we've all had that experience at some point in our life. For me, I really did feel like a fish out of water. I was thirteen years old. By the way, in this book, it is not a critique on the school. It is a critique on me. I felt a little funny about saying that or reexamining those high school years. By the way, I always tell my kids, “You don't want to peak in high school.” That's a good lesson that I took out of it.
Zibby: Yes, or sixth grade. I know a lot of those people still.
Rachel: Or sixth grade. My husband and I always joke that we’re still peaking. It’s always good.
Zibby: Exactly. My grandmother who's almost ninety-six says she's never looked better. Every year, she gets more compliments than the last. You never know.
Rachel: That's great. That was painful to revisit. I really did feel so out of place. I had no confidence. To answer your question about, did the uniform that I put upon myself help? In some ways, yes. I've always -- this is a little bit evident -- been pretty observant about what people are wearing and clothing. I, in my thirteen-year-old mind, thought to myself, if I could dress like them, maybe I could be like them. Maybe it would give me some kind of confidence, whether false or not, to try to make new friends and try to blend in. To some extent, it did help. As in the case of anything, I wish I could go back and do it differently. First of all, I wouldn't have gotten the perm. I tell my daughter all the time she has great straight hair. I say never get a perm. I don't know if people get perms anyone.
Zibby: I don't know either.
Rachel. That was a big mistake.
Zibby: Back then, that was very --
Rachel: -- That was the very thing to do.
Zibby: That was the thing, yeah.
Rachel: That was just bad timing. I wish I could've been more of myself. When I say that, I mean myself knowing me now. I didn't know who I was then. When I look back on it, there were so many people who didn't know who they were. I write about one very good friend who I met who I still keep up with closely. I still go to reunions. When I see people -- this is for kids out there -- it doesn't matter. All that stuff goes away. Everybody is just trying to figure out who you are when you're thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and even later on in life too.
Zibby: Yes. I remember I would go to dances and I was so nervous wearing my long Laura Ashley skirt, which is not cool for dance.
Rachel: By the way, I feel like some of that stuff is back in style. Laura Ashley is now being made for Urban Outfitters. I saw on Anthropologie the other day, the drop-waist dresses are back in. It’s all coming back.
Zibby: Awesome. Shoulder pads, here I come. At the time, I remember my mom’s advice to me when I went to a dance. “Just be yourself.” I'm twelve. I have no idea what that even means. I ended up standing in the corner and not speaking because what did that mean? I relate. I think many people can relate. Many people can relate with their kids now going through the same thing. I'm always like, should I let my daughter buy the same thing that all her friends have? I know how important it is to feel like you fit in. Then do I really have to buy this new backpack? Doesn't she have a good enough backpack?
Rachel: I know. There's a fine line in there.
Zibby: I relate. You started one chapter with the line, “I met my husband at a party I almost didn't go to,” which is always how it works in life. I wanted to hear more about that situation and how you developed with your husband over time. You did such a nice job of talking about all the things that happen in life and how you happened to stay together, not stay together, happened to develop in the same way. How could you have known that you would be lucky enough? You put a lot of luck into it. Tell me your view on that.
Rachel: That's very true. It always happens that you end up meeting somebody at a party you almost didn't go to. I really almost didn't go to that party. It was a Friday night. I worked a long week. I was tired. It was rainy. My friend convinced me to go to this party. I met my husband Neil, who by the way is so private and doesn't like this whole publicity stuff.
Zibby: Sorry, Neil. Don't listen. [laughs]
Rachel: But it works. It totally works.
Zibby: We’re going to use you a little more here.
Rachel: When I wrote about him in the chapter that mainly focused on him, I do think there is luck involved. First of all, I don't think there's one person for every one person. A lot of it is timing. Maybe if I didn't go to that party, I wouldn't have met him that night. Maybe I would've met him another night. I do think there was luck involved in the sense that when I met him, I was twenty-two. He was twenty-three. I was twenty-five; he was twenty-six when we got married. By today’s standard, East Coast, it’s very young. Now we've been together for over twenty years. I write about this in book. We grew up together and we grew together. I appreciate that. I recognize that we totally could have grown apart by no fault of anyone, just by life. I've seen it happen to people that I know and love. I'm amazed it doesn't happen more. There definitely was luck.
I also think when I met him and getting to know him as I got to know him, there were things that -- we had similarly aligned values. Our friends got along. Our family got along. He made me laugh. I made him laugh. Then life, as I write in the book, did throw stuff at us. I write a lot about my mom. He's been through challenges in life too. I've supported him in his career. He's supported me in my career. One of the things -- not that this is a self-help on marriage because it’s not. One of the things that I try to remember a lot, which is something that my aunt told me, who's very wise, which is to remember to compliment each other. I’ll say to her sometimes, “Neil did this.” She said, “You should tell him that, that you appreciate that about him.” Sometimes we forget to compliment or say something nice about the people that live in our house.
Zibby: That's good advice, very good advice. Thanks to your aunt. You mention a few times about the loss of your mother. You wrote about it so beautifully. My heart was just breaking for you. You also wrote about it in the context of clothing. One thing you said was how fast your baby weight fell off. You said, “The baby weight fell off” -- your mother was sick when you had your daughter.
Rachel: My son.
Zibby: Your son, sorry. I can't even remember my own kids’ genders half the time. “The baby weight fell off freakishly fast because I was a freak. I was a brand-new, twenty-nine-year-old mother who was more concerned with the tumors growing inside my fifty-seven-year-old mother than I was with the growth chart of my brand-new baby.” You said, “I was a calm mother, I think, because I was a nervous daughter.”
Rachel: That line resonated with me and with a lot of other people. I actually just wrote an essay called “Calm Mother, Nervous Daughter” in preparation and promotion for this book. I think about that a lot and that timing of it. There's one thing that I think about a lot. I actually have this little scar on top of my left eye, which I can only see when I'm looking in that mirror to put on eye makeup. That was from Halloween in 2003. I will not forget this. My baby was only six weeks old. My mother was very sick. I was just leaving the farmers market in our town. I had bought her all this fresh fruit and produce and stuff because I was desperate.
Zibby: Your mother or your daughter?
Rachel: My mother. I was like, maybe if she has greens and kale, it'll help fight the cancer. I was grasping at straws. I was buying all this stuff for her and trying to help her out, even though she wasn't asking for it. I had my baby with me. He was six weeks old. He was in one of those bucket car seats. I was getting the fruits in the car. I was getting him in the car. I was so discombobulated. I slammed the door right here above my eye. I was bleeding. Luckily, it didn't hit my eye. I remember I got the baby settled. I drove to the ER. I brought my six-week-old child into the ER, which you're probably not supposed to do. I met with a doctor. He stitched me up, just two little stitches.
Then I was like, done with that. Time to bring the fruits over to my mom. I have the baby. The point, really, there was that I didn't have time to worry about my baby. I don't know which came first, if it was cause or effect. He was a good baby. He slept well. He didn't cry that much. I didn't worry about stuff like tummy time or play classes or developmental goals. He seemed to reach them. I'm not saying I did it the right way. I did it the only way that I knew how. That's something that I think about a lot. I keep it in perspective. It’s been fifteen years since my mom died. My kids are now teenagers. I have the perspective of the loss. I also worry about the little things now in a way that I guess I didn't have the luxury of or the time to do it back then.
Zibby: Maybe there was some benefit to that.
Rachel: Maybe there was.
Zibby: I feel like if I didn't worry so much, my kids -- I worry so much less with my last two kids than I did with my first two kids.
Rachel: Yes. It’s funny. You develop friendships with mom friends over the years. That's in the book a little bit too. Sometimes we talk about what it was like when they were babies. I don't really remember a lot because I was so busy with my mom, or even after she died, just dealing with the loss of that. It was a weird time. It happened the way it happened.
Zibby: You had this one scene in the book where you're in the shower. You scream out loud. I'm not going to curse. “What the F?” How could you be a mother without having your own mother?
Rachel: I can remember what that felt like. I've written a lot about grief. I've actually even taught journaling workshops on grief. The one thing that I do know about grief is that sometimes when you're really in it, it actually physically hurts. That night that I was in the shower, it hurt. That's probably why I took a shower. Whenever I feel achy or sore, I'm like, I’ll a take shower. I’ll feel better. I yelled that out loud to nobody. The thing that was so tough for me was the timing. I realize that a lot of people lose parents or people that they love when they're much younger than I was or with a lot less support or under different, maybe harder circumstance. For me, the best way that I can describe my mom for people who didn't know her is that I could never get enough of her. When I was in college or living in New York and working, she would come see me from wherever she was. I don't want to make you cry.
Zibby: You're about to.
Rachel: She would take me out to lunch. We would have a great visit. Then a few hours later that night, I would call her to tell her something else. I just couldn't get enough of her. It felt particularly sad for me that she died, that she left me, which is what it felt like at a time where -- I had just moved to the area where my parents lived to be with her. I just had a baby. You probably know this from your mom. When you have a baby, it’s a time where you can reconnect with your mom on a different level. It seemed so unfair that that was the time when I was losing her. In the shower at that moment, I was thinking, how am I going to do this without her? I've done it without her. I don't know what she would think of the job I'm doing. I hope she’d be proud of it. I don't feel like saying “What the F?” anymore. Even actually this morning, I was talking to a friend of mine from college about some teenage stuff with my kids and schools and things. I said to her, “I wonder what my mom would say.” She said, “I’ll tell you what she would say.” She was right. I had such a close relationship with her. I know how she parented me. I sometimes know what she would say. I'm going on a tangent here.
Zibby: No, I love it. Keep going.
Rachel: I also know that it’s okay and maybe -- listen, I wish she was alive. Maybe because I lost her, maybe I became a different kind of parent, not better or worse. Maybe I was able to make my own decisions and not live in her shadow and be a parent like she was in the good ways and maybe not do the bad stuff, maybe do worse stuff. I don't know, but I think about it a lot. I look to my friends and their mothers sometimes for advice, or to my aunt, or to older friends of mine, or to my mother-in-law. There's no one like your mother. There was no one like my mother, as is evident. When I see mothers and daughters together, I'm always a little envious. People have that with other things too. I didn't mean to be like, woe is me.
Zibby: You're not being woe is me. You lost your mom.
Rachel: Another thing about my mom too is that she did say to me when she was sick, “Don't ever use me as a crutch. Go about your life. Live a happy life.” That was another inspiration to this book. I looked back on my life. I'm in midlife. I'm forty-five. I realized I am this happy, well-adjusted person. When I was twenty-nine, I really wasn't. How did I get there? That was part of writing the book too.
Zibby: That's all so beautiful. I'm so sorry that you had to go through that. I can't imagine she’d be anything but proud of you.
Rachel: Thank you. Thanks for saying that.
Zibby: Aw, I'm so sorry. This book, you said it’s been in you for a very long time. When you're going through all this emotion and reliving these painful memories but also finding an inspiring take on them, where did you do this? You mentioned these Starbucks lattes.
Rachel: Yes, I'm addicted to Starbucks.
Zibby: Indoor scarves.
Rachel: Yes, indoor scarves. There is a chapter in the book called Indoor Scarves and How I Became a Writer. That is an example of how I started wearing these -- basically, when the temperature drops below seventy-five, I'm wearing a scarf. My family makes fun of me for that, these fun, funky scarves that are soft. I figured out that was also the time when I started wearing them, when I was thirty-five, that I left my career in marketing and PR to become a writer full time. I wonder if there was a connection to that, kind of tongue-in-cheek but related to that. Like I said, I wrote the first book. It got published. Then I wrote more and more and more. I eventually left my day job and became an author.
This book, I wrote a lot in my house. I have a makeshift office in my living room which is becoming more of an office. I actually redid it this summer. It looks great. My day-to-day life is my kids get off to school and I write. I'm a morning person. I’ll write at home. I like to wear a scarf. It keeps me cozy. I'm always accessorized. Then usually around midday I will head over to Starbucks because I like to get out, sometimes other coffeehouses, but usually Starbucks. There's a lot of distractions in my house. Sometimes people say, “How can you focus in a coffee shop?” I just put my AirPods in. Then I'm usually out and about, so I can pick up a kid or do something that I need to do. That's how I wrote this book. It took me about a year to write. When I'm really writing, I am into it. I won't stop. I don't stop a lot to edit. I write. Then I go back and edit. That's how the process works for me.
Zibby: Have you thought about your next writing project?
Rachel: I have. I said before that I've written all nonfiction. I always said to myself, I can't write fiction. I'm not creative enough. I don't know how to do that. I was actually having coffee with an author friend of mine a little over a year ago. She felt the same way. Then she wrote a book, a fiction book, I shouldn't just say a book. She inspired me a little bit. I went back and I've outlined a book. I have these characters in my head. I started really writing it last fall. I think I might like it better than writing memoir and nonfiction. There's not a lot of rules. The truth is that all the characters that I make up, everything's sort of based on real life.
In memoir, what happened to me is what happened to me. You can't make it up. I really am into this idea. I love these characters. I feel like now when I'm working, I play with them. It’s like I'm playing with my imaginary friends in my head. It’s a little weird. I think about them at night. For now, I tabled that for a while because this book is coming out this fall. I got really busy with promotion and marketing and events. I'm focused on that right now. I have to say, I love that. I like being a writer because I love writing. I like the solitude of that, but I love people. I love getting out and talking to people about it. Once this whole book tour and stuff dies down a little bit, I will definitely go back to my friends in my head and write fiction.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?
Rachel: A couple things. Funny what I just said about being a people person. When I work a lot at Starbucks, a lot of times people say, “I have this idea. I have this friend. Can she call you?” I used to be a lot more open to that, not to be mean about it now. I've found sometimes I would meet people and they'd be like, “I have this idea.” It’s butt in chair. You have to sit down and write it. You might think it’s horrible, but you've got to start somewhere. You've got to write it. Then once you have something, you have to be able to take criticism, which was a hard lesson for me to learn, from an editor or somebody you trust or an agent. Then you have to be able to put yourself out in the world and put the book out in the world. The world of publishing is changing so much, as you know. You're doing amazing things to get people out there. Say yes to everything. Do podcasts. Talk to people. Go to events. I'm doing events that aren't necessarily traditional book events too. That runs the gamut from beginning, middle, and end. There's a lot in there.
Zibby: That's awesome. Thank you. I forgot to ask you about your chocolate chip cookies. Rachel was so sweet and brought me chocolate chip cookies today after I had been asking her about her reference to them in the book and in an article she’d written or something.
Rachel: I wrote an article for the Huffington Post about my chocolate chip cookies. I made them famous.
Zibby: You did. They were amazing. Thank you. That made my day too, in addition to talking to you.
Rachel: Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed them. Cookies are always good. Thank you so much for having me on.
Zibby: Thanks for coming. Bye.