Laura Carney’s new book, MY FATHER’S LIST: HOW LIVING MY DAD’S DREAMS SET ME FREE, is part memoir, part advocacy, and part instruction manual on becoming purposeful and mindful of how we spend our days. Over a dozen years after losing her father to a distracted driver, Laura found a handwritten list of things her father had wanted to complete during his lifetime. A few had been checked off, but most of the 60 items were still waiting to be completed.
Carney’s book follows her as she skydives, grows a watermelon, travels both internationally and across the country, meets a U.S. President, and attends events like the Rose Bowl. Throughout the book, Carney’s combination of fortitude and flexibility keeps the emotional adventure both fluid and realistic. While tasks like “Visit London,” “Own a Black Tux,” and “Plant an Apple Tree” were completed literally, others invited interpretation to be possible, especially during the pandemic lockdown.
Carney’s perseverance around her running, which keeps her moving despite injuries and varied success, is a story unto itself. As is the love and healthy symbiosis she shares with her husband Steven. During the pandemic, Laura and Steven completed “Running Every Street” of Montclair to raise funds for an animal sanctuary. The honesty with which she shares her emotional growth, discouragements, and motivations as she completes the list is refreshing and sobering.
Readers will be impressed with Carney’s ingenuity around money-related goals and tasks that had complicating factors. One moving example is how to complete #59: Sing at my daughter’s wedding. Since her father had passed years before, Carney served a wine her father had treasured at her wedding, and “their bellies sang” after toasting with it. Beautiful. And to complete “sell millions of dollars’ of merchandise,” Carney counted the million-dollar gratitude her cousin’s husband expressed: “…you guys deserve a million dollars for watching those kids.” Any parent can relate.
Filled with optimism, and tempered with challenge, hardship, and emotional turmoil at times, MY FATHER’S LIST will serve as inspiration for those feeling worn down by the everyday grind. The end of the book invites readers to create their own list of goals, just as Laura Carney did after completing her father’s list.
My Father’s List: How Living My Dad’s Dreams Set Me Free comes out June 13, 2023. Pre-order it at the link above or here: https://myfatherslist.com. Watchung Booksellers is hosting Laura Carney for a book launch event on June 14, 2023 at 7 PM.
Laura was generous enough to sit down with Baristanet and answer some questions prior to her book’s release.
Baristanet: Your upcoming book, MY FATHER’S LIST, is a detailed journey of grief, legacy, and honoring the memory of a loved one. Advocacy for awareness about distracted driving is also woven throughout the stories you share. What message regarding everyday driving habits do you hope your readers take away from the book?
Laura Carney: Thank you. I think we’re at a point now where phones have become so ubiquitous that we often don’t realize when we’re using one or where. We don’t realize we’ve become like sheep with them, doing what we think everyone else is. One thing I noticed while checking off my dad’s bucket list was that I became more conscious about my life. I became so occupied with the important work I was doing that my phone became just a tool. Being inspired by what you’re doing at that level makes you value life more—you become more aware of behaviors that could end it or someone else’s. When I drive, I only use my phone for GPS, and I don’t touch it unless the car is completely stopped. Anything else is risking too much. And I do this beyond the fact that my dad died because of someone making a phone call. I value my life too much to waste it making hasty choices.
Baristanet: You and your brother discovered your father’s “bucket list,” titled “Things I Would Like to Do in My Lifetime!” years after your father’s death. He wrote it when he was just 29, and you finished it for him about 40 years after he originally wrote it. Some were open to interpretation, allowing you to complete seemingly impossible tasks in a meaningful way. Which item did you feel strongly needed to be as true to your father’s original intent as possible? Why?
Carney: Yes, we found it 13 years after he died. Not soon enough, in some ways, but probably when I was emotionally ready to take it on. Certain items, like “correspond with the Pope,” “talk with the president,” “go to the Rose Bowl” or “go to a Super Bowl game” had to be as close to the original as possible. My goal was to experience the feeling these things would have given my dad, and in those cases, nothing could live up to the feeling of the actual person or place. However, I felt OK checking off “own a large house and our own land” by buying an extra-large tent for camping and running every street in Montclair during the pandemic. The pandemic made buying a large house and owning actual land seem less feasible for us—my husband was high-risk due to asthma. We viewed running every street in Montclair as “owning” our land, since we covered all of it, and in normal times we both worked in the city and were rarely home. When we went camping, it was the first time we’d left our house in months, and I was afraid there were bears—when we set up camp, I was so grateful for our tent—our “large house.” I felt this sense of expansion being out in the world again. So for me, I was getting the feeling of the list item—house means “shelter” in the dictionary, after all—without having to go with what I thought he meant literally.
Baristanet: You are very open about mental health, drug regimens, family history, and regrets throughout the book. Why was it important to you to share so many intimate moments and experiences with readers? Do you think it helped you as much as it will help those who read your story?
Carney: Authors don’t make stories a certain way as much as they surrender to them. This was the story that wanted to be told. It’s not my whole life, by any means. And the people in it aren’t the full people. But the events of these six years, plus several flashbacks from my 20s and childhood, were woven in naturally. Most of the time, I found myself feeling I had to force myself to let go and say what had to be said…like the story was leading me. What it usually felt like was my subconscious was calling the shots, and in the subconscious, there is no shame. Due to how often the topic of shame and how it limits us came up, being as forthcoming as possible seemed important.
I trusted that my dad’s spirit wouldn’t let me say anything that shouldn’t be told. It took me a long time to develop that trust. The process was healing for me, as before this time I was frozen in trauma, without knowing it, and even before then, I wasn’t accustomed to using my voice authentically, growing up female in this place and time. The process meant relearning what it felt like to be age nine, before society crept in and gave me a bunch of rules. Now I’m that person again, every day.
If the story helps others, that’s a bonus. As I got deeper into the writing, it seemed this was more about needing to figure things out inside of me. The book became a place where I could be free, hence the subtitle.
Baristanet: The topic of your father’s cross-dressing and the shame you believe he felt comes up several times during the book. While it wasn’t specifically on the list, how did delving into the topic and meeting other cross-dressers help you with healing?
Carney: I think it was the act of keeping the secret that brought my dad shame, not the cross-dressing. Living a double life takes a lot of energy and requires lying, even if you’re doing it to protect people.
I tried to write about it from my own experience, the only one I had a right to. We found the list six months after my wedding, when I felt expected to prioritize my gender role over my personal goals in life. I cared less about starting a family than other women seemed to, and because we’re often taught it’s natural for women to want to be a wife and mother first, my own desires made me feel like an abomination.
I attended a cross-dressers’ support group so I could write about this part of my dad’s life with sensitivity. But I left feeling grateful for how much freedom I truly had to express my femininity. The men in that group didn’t have that. It made me sympathize with my dad’s experience. I no longer viewed him as dishonest or selfish but admirable and selfless. It’s a good idea in general to see the humanness in your parents. It helps you accept the humanness in you.
Baristanet: Your spirituality and belief in coincidence and symbolism is an important part of the book. Many times, you mention that your father was present or spoke to you as you completed the items on his list. Can you talk about how this is important to you and how it helped you feel connected to your father?
Carney: When people are particularly aligned with what they are doing, they begin noticing moments of serendipity. You can be so “in flow” that it increases your sense of connection with the world around you. As soon as I said yes to the list, this began happening to me. Enough miracles happened—examples of grace helping me with list items—that I could not doubt God or faith any longer. My dad’s death and my grief had kept me stuck in a tragic moment in time, and that stuckness had shut me down for forward movement. This was why I was blocked as a writer for 13 years. When I finally began telling the story I was supposed to tell and checking off my dad’s bucket list, everything began moving again. This vitality comes to people fulfilling their life’s purpose. As Joseph Campbell said, we aren’t searching for the meaning of life. We’re searching for the feeling of being alive.
I often felt I needed my dad’s guidance to complete the items, so I became open to the idea that his spirit might still exist. It made sense to ask him things like, “Why did you want to do this?” I looked for his answers, wherever they might be.
One wonderful result of this is I never think of my father as lost or gone now. When we die, I believe we transition. And some spirits have more influence on life here in death than they did when they were alive. I don’t think of the sadness and bitterness I used to be stuck in as an act of devotion—it so often made me afraid to fully live.
Baristanet: Your work life and advocacy life sometimes intertwined. Speaking out about distracted driving and your active participation in the advocacy of awareness around the topic seemed to be consuming at some points. Towards the beginning of the book, you write about your reticence to be the face of tragedy saying, “I’d been hiding tragedy my whole life.” Now writing and publicizing My Father’s List gives a more complete vision of not just your life, but your father’s and your entire family’s life as well as how tragedy creates ripples for those affected. Have you overcome your wariness about being “the face of tragedy” — and if so, how?
Carney: The person in my book who talked about being the “face of tragedy” in chapter one wasn’t very enlightened yet. That was the person who thought she needed to hide things about herself to find acceptance. Of course people do this all the time—you rarely see funerals on Instagram.
I benefitted a great deal from the advocacy I learned about at one stage in my life. It helped me find comfort in speaking up. It taught me the importance of fighting for change. But at a certain point in my journey with the list, I began to see that while it’s important to protect people from death, what worked better for me as an advocate was motivating people to enjoy and appreciate being alive. I developed a belief that people who feel that way don’t make choices that end in death anyway.
To me it felt better to “be the change” and hope others might be inspired by my example—but not expect it. In that way I became the face of resilience, persistence and joy. And I believe so is my family, who supported me.
Baristanet: Your adventures include some funny scenes as well. Sailing solo — and capsizing solo — is described in self-deprecating but loving terms, and sharing details about getting turned around on European transit, not twice, but five times (!), has a similarly kind but amused tone. By the end of the book, readers are assured that your self-confidence and appreciation of yourself are strong. How did you manage to keep a sense of humor even through deeply trying times?
Carney: I often thought about how my dad would feel if he got to be alive again, like be in a body and remember what that’s like. What occurred to me was that he’d find it super fun, even the foibles of being human—especially the foibles. This was true to our relationship too—he was always making jokes, mocking things, trying to make me take life and myself less seriously. So when things inevitably “went wrong,” as they did a heck of a lot no matter how hard I researched things (and sometimes because I’d worked too hard), I viewed it as my dad’s humor. I chose to enjoy the mistakes as adventures. And appreciate that every time I made a mistake, it was just, as Oprah says, a necessary detour. Mistakes are what help us learn. Even now, when something goes not at all as I thought, I’ll laugh out loud and be like “of course!” Or “good one!”
Baristanet: During your travels, you call your husband Steven to talk about forgiveness. You say that you realize you’ve forgiven your mom and stepdad and your father, but that you still need to forgive yourself for how you treated your father. How did working on and completing your father’s list help you reach that goal?
Carney: As I touched on above, we need to see our parents as imperfect people who did their best in life in order to give grace to ourselves. I really believe it’s impossible to believe in yourself enough to take chances and go after what you believe you’re meant to—to trust your own heart—if you can’t forgive. When someone dies suddenly like my dad did, it can feel like you’ve lost that chance to talk about everything, to have a real deathbed conversation. Because I was so young, I think, I really needed that conversation to happen. And doing the list helped me to have that. It gave me more agency in putting him to rest, and I needed that to move forward with my life.
I think my wider purpose with doing the list might have been yes, subjecting myself to this process, perhaps so I could help free other people too. Just because we’re told death is the end doesn’t mean it is. Love lasts forever. There is always a chance to forgive.
Baristanet: What do you hope readers take away from reading MY FATHER’S LIST?
Carney: I hope that when women, particularly women around my age, read this book, they see themselves in the story and choose to follow their hearts too. What I kept learning over and over again doing the list and writing about it was how many things I’d taken as God’s honest truth – kind of weren’t. We have the freedom to shape our own lives, as President Jimmy Carter says in the book, as long as we are collaborating with something good and true that’s bigger than us. We are never really alone and don’t have to be afraid. God put us here to put our gifts to good use, but it’s up to us to blaze that trail, if that’s what it takes to find them. Just do it. Don’t wait.
The other thing I’d advise is to never miss an opportunity for connection—whether with an animal, nature or another human being. We are all the same, really. When you connect with someone else, it’s like smiling at yourself. We seem to wear blinders too often or believe in hierarchies that aren’t real. It’s impossible to really be alone, unless you’re in solitary confinement—take advantage of all the wonders in being alive. Climb the mountain. Go dancing.
My Father’s List: How Living My Dad’s Dreams Set Me Free comes out June 13, 2023.