Beyond childhood, I learned most of what I know about life through experiences like living in Cuba, being a mother, working as a nurse, making lots of mistakes, gaining humility (a good thing) and self-doubt (not a good thing).
A few years ago I started to understand just how important it is to complement learning about life from one’s direct experiences with learning through books. Not ’til Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, Julie Barton, and a host of other truth-telling memoirists did I realize just how much, and how deeply, one can learn about life, and oneself through reading. How many truly great books there are to read, not just for fun. Not just for distraction. Not just for hobby. For enlightenment.
For instance I read and loved Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Chronology of Water”. That would have been enough. This book totally jolted me. I mentioned it to a friend who then read it and also loved it. Then he recommended it to his book club, and invited me to participate as a “special guest”. I felt honored and excited at the chance to discuss Lidia with at least one other person who loved her and of course, I thought, everyone would. I hadn’t anticipated the book club members possibly hating the book. They hated it. Even the ones who refused to read it panned it and Lidia. I sat mute, dumb-founded, and horrified. I told myself do NOT take what they’re saying personally. (I hate it when I don’t take my own excellent advice). I took it personally. They were trashing my Lidia. Then I was asked to say why I loved the book. Given their highly negative opinions, I really didn’t know what to say. It was one of those profoundly awkward moments in my life, when I just wanted to pull a Harry Potter (oh yes, some of my favorite reading) and with a sweep of my invisibility cloak, disappear! Instead I sat hurt and hating these people who had failed to grasp the genius of Lidia. I spoke in a restrained fashion, attempting to ameliorate the damage I was doing to them in my mind, with an uber-explanatory airplane load of words that I could see did not land.
In a recent “Brain Pickings” “Kafka on Books and What Reading Does for the Human Soul”, http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/06/kafka-on-books-and-reading/ Maria Popova, shares this great quote by Franz Kafka, taken from a letter he wrote to a friend in 1904:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? … we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
Thank you Franz Kafka! If ever there was one, “The Chronology of Water” is the axe for our frozen seas. Lidia’s is the book Kafka’s quote was written for. I wish I had this quote on the tip of my tongue at the book club. I would have recited it slowly, then, twirled myself – Loretta Young-fashion — gracefully out the door. Tah-dah!
(What really happened? My friend’s husband — who recently earned his degree in psychotherapeutic counseling — came home as the book club was wrapping up. noticed the state I was in, and immediately provided a resuscitating session’s worth of therapeutic listening and counseling. Gratis).
There is a lot of suffering in life. We need to be able to look at and see our own terror. Learn how to work with it, become more compassionate and kind toward ourselves and others. Learn to discern nuance, gain appreciation for how much courage this life takes to engage fully. Gain courage. Great books can help us do all this.
Looking squarely at life can be frightening, but, ultimately, I believe, it is liberating. Alternatively we can freeze in our sea of fear, pacify ourselves with pretty things, distract ourselves with food, TV/social media, alcohol/drugs, or simply a million things on ours and others’ to do lists. Lidia has just come out with a new book,”The Small Backs of Children”. She’s reading from it at Green Apple Books On the Park, Friday, July 10th. Personally, I could use some more axe to my still partially frozen interior sea. I’ll be there, listening closely. Then, I’ll be reading.