It is not always easy to be a writer when the world is so dark and distracting. It would be easier to be busy in the way I was two months ago, with so many distractions that the Washington freak show could intrude only at moments. Easier, but not necessarily better.
Over the past few weeks, I have periodically fallen down the rabbit hole of news–the latter of which is real, by the way, for anyone who might have thought otherwise. I open the Times on my computer first thing in the morning and find myself still there two hours later. In despair. And believe me, it is hard to write about grief from a place of despair. Grief at least has a rich if sometimes hidden trove of creativity at its heart; despair doesn’t have a heart in which to hide anything.
This past week, though, I felt some perspective coming back. Not because the news was any better. But because a) I decided not to read the news until my own reading and writing was done; b) I confirmed that, even if you’re going to wear the most comfortable fleece pants in the universe and your favorite sweater all day (every day), it’s still a good idea to shower first thing as if you were going to put on your fancy clothes to go to work; c) joy; and d) I reminded myself in a few powerful ways that we can all be saved by really good books and the people who write them. A brief bit of commentary on the first three items on that list: a) is harder than it should be, but worth the effort; b) is what it is–I’m not proud that this is what it has come to, but there you have it; c) because even if it might seem impossible right now to lay claim to the bigger project of happiness–which is a kind of long-term thing and a bit elusive at the moment if you really live in this world and care about it–joy persists. And it still knocks me over. Here are just a few of the things that have provided me with moments of joy in the past week alone: a puppy who discovers real snow for the first time; a daughter who came home from a week in New York with two tins of my favorite tea and a few other very thoughtful goodies; that same daughter finding out that she got into an awesome graduate school; Feldman’s chicken soup.
As much as I’d like to make you all a cup of that tea, here’s a little piece of that joy that I can share here:
But on to d). And this week, you might be happy to know that I’m not going to say anything about puppy books, despite the fact that there has indeed been some reading along those lines (because, you know, a puppy requires a lot more knowledge–and patience–than you might think, she says, having just cleaned up a pee puddle after thinking he’d gotten the whole house training thing figured out . . . )
My friend Jeanne gave me this book,
and it sat on my desk for a couple of weeks while I stewed away in political angst. I picked it up this past Monday, though, the title suddenly seeming like a imperative. Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain, and this book weaves together some of the stories she’s heard from people who are dying with a story from her own life. One of the things I admire the most about this book is that she doesn’t instrumentalize the stories of the hospice patients in order to tell her own story. As a hospice chaplain, her job is to be a witness to the stories of people who are dying, and the integrity of that act of deep listening shows up fully intact in this book. When she tells her own traumatic story, then–which she does throughout–it is in genuine conversation with the stories of her patients. A writer of memoir myself, I appreciate the fact that this is a lot harder to do, and rarer in the genre, than one might think. So often, a memoirist tells someone else’s story just to get to their own. That’s what I mean by “instrumentalize.” Egan doesn’t do that, which probably made it a much harder book to write. Yet it’s not labored at all. I love that at the level of form and voice, the book is utterly deceiving in its simplicity. Like a poem by George Herbert (whom I’ve also been reading this week), this book sort of sneaks up on you. Another reason I love this book has to do with the fact that even in a post-Tuesdays With Morrie world, On Living is entirely devoid of cliches. Every single chapter surprised me, even the one about angels. (And yeah, you’re thinking, angels, really?–which is exactly what I thought. And then I read it.) I recommend it highly. And if you don’t have time to read it but really wish you did, take a listen to Terry Gross’s interview with Kerry Egan on Fresh Air. She talks just like she writes. (And that’s yet another reason to love the book.)
Thanks, Jeanne, for knowing I needed this book.
Here’s another book I needed. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that everyone needs this book right now. If you’re reading this blog as a teeny tiny respite from all that dismal (not fake) news out there, stop reading that stuff immediately and find this book instead. I mean it.
Rebecca Solnit, who I’m going to call an activist historian, should be crowned the laureate of the Trump-sick millions. Listen to this: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is the room to act.” Or this: “[Hope is] the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” And this, about memory: “Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.” Reading Solnit will help you to see that even the little things we can do right now to resist the take-down of American democracy do matter. Every single thing. All those pink hats? Matter. The emails to my senators? Matter. Writing a check to the ACLU? Matters. Remembering to remember. Matters.
Speaking of which: I happened upon this book about the same time I happened upon the opportunity to see “State of Marriage,” a 2015 documentary film that remembers the Vermont roots of the marriage equality movement. That story gave me whole big goosebumps of hope, in exactly the way that Solnit’s injunction against amnesia gives me hope. And if you can’t read Solnit, then for heaven’s sake, listen to her as well–51 minutes that will feel like they saved your life. And watch “State of Marriage” if you ever get the chance. Now there’s a story of hope and love triumphing against all political odds, a story that really truly did save a lot of peoples’ lives.
Hope and joy, how about that? Nevertheless, they persist.