Books That Pave the Way for Life’s Journey

Books That Pave the Way for Life's Journey

Books can take us on many journeys and I love to get lost in fiction. But ever so often a book can inform, change an attitude, a choice, maybe even a life. Having the ideas of thinkers and researchers at our side when we have a question, a problem or a new idea can make the difference between informed choice and blowing in the wind. The net makes it even easier, as you can type in a term: education, marriage, parenting, employment, health, exercise, travel, science, politics–and voila, your choices are numerous. I’ve picked a few today to get your thinking about nonfiction. Some of these choices have been in print for years. Some are hot off the press. We all want to embrace the next decades with knowledge and understanding–so happy searching and reading.

I highly recommend Dr. Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine and Miracles that relates, through his personal experience, how death is truly part of life and acceptance of a loved one’s death makes a passage easier on the one leaving and the one staying. When he was asked to recommend a list of self-help books, he responded: “Every book ever written is a self-help book. What’s the Bible? What about Buddha? Each generation thinks somebody new is starting the process, but we keep repeating the wisdom of the sages and the ages.”

Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient was written by Norman Cousins, a longtime editor at the Saturday Review. The book relates how Cousins laughed his way out of a crippling disease by watching the Marx Brothers and thus “jump-started the whole mind-body connection.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is the memoir of Victor Frankl MD PhD, who survived Auschwitz. He argues that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, states that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the discovery and then the pursuit of what we find meaningful..

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi This is one I have not read, but it is definitely on my list. If you have read Atul Gawande and Anne Lamott, readers state you should read this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir that finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds. It is written by an idealistic young neurosurgeon as he attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? He died within two years of his diagnosis.

Blindsided by Richard M. Cohen, a Journalist and husband to Meredith Vieira. In this memoir, Cohen relates his battle with MS, startling the reader with his grace and wisdom.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Mood and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison This professor of psychiatry shares her personal struggle with manic depression. She is also the author of Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive illness and the Artistic Temperament.  

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion A personal favorite, this 2005 National Book Award winner recounts how Joan could continue to live after her husband’s sudden death and then was faced with their only child lapsing into a coma. (Read Blue Nights for the end of that part of Didion’s story.)

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I received this book for one of those “life-changing” birthdays. It’s amazing. The author shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world. You will better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics.

The Book of Joy authors, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama Despite the hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—these two men are the most joyful people on the planet.

If you have suggestions, please mention them in your comments. Wishing you good health and good reading. We are all in this together.

Parts of this post appeared in 2011 in a different form.

Photo credit: janeaustenrunsmylife

True Memoir: When the Writer Gives You a Gift

And I have written before about sharing your love and your life with someone, even if they are dying. Don't be afraid. I admire the thoughtful columns of Meghan Daum. Recently she drew an interesting distinction between what writers put into a memoir–stating that it should be an honest report on a life and not a confession. She stated that some writers of memoir treat the form without respect.

“They forget about their audience. They forget that they have a mandate to shape the material into something beyond a diary entry or a rant. They also confuse honesty and confession.” —Salon, January 2013

To simplify, Daum believes

  • a memoir that reads like a confession is asking the reader for something;
  • a memoir that is an honest relating of one’s life is a generous gift, a sharing of a life so the reader will feel less alone.

When I read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, by Joan Didion, I was transported. Didion worked through the loss of her husband in that book–but she wasn’t asking me to weep for her, she was offering the gift of shared human experience. From her book I wrote my piece THE DAY OF MAGICAL THINKING. I then read her next book, BLUE NIGHTS, about her daughter’s illness and death. I cherish both of these honest and endearing works. Didion from The Year of Magical Thinking:

We all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. 

So true, and yes lately–we have been reading a great deal about shock and awe on Elm Street. FOR A CHANGE– I’d like to focus on stories that are shockingly wonderful. Stories of success and happiness–because they can happen just as fast as sorrowful events. We all need to work harder at focussing on the positive.

  • So Meghan Daum has a point: let’s focus on those people in our lives who are walking memoirs, the ones who share their lives and their stories with us and give us some joy.
  • They don’t harangue us with negatives, tear down the way we live; they aren’t constantly begging us for attention and complaining about their lot. We do not need their ugly negative thoughts.

Didion was deeply hurting in both of her books; she was in sorrow over the loss of her husband and daughter. But she gave of herself with openness and shared with her readers the JOY of her life, the WONDER of those precious relationships and the POSITIVES of the human experience.

Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? It’s more than a diary. It should really be the awakening of memory and the sharing of your soul. When you search Amazon for books on how to write a memoir, there are many to choose from. But this one stands out. Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, writes about memory itself:

Memory is a pinball in a machine–it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken the moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk–how did so much fit into such a small space?

I’m no Meghan Daum or Joan Didion, but I did write a memoir over 15 years ago, that like other work I have done is filed in a cabinet. I searched that work today, found a passage that might qualify as GIVING you something–I am certainly not asking for forgiveness or confessing a sin. This goes back to my childhood. I am trying to remember it. Did the clowns spill out of the car trunk?

My mother gives us a record with the story of the PIED PIPER of HAMLIN. I play this over and over. It is a strange story about a town infested with rats, about a piper who can rid the town of these pests, and then, because he is not properly paid for his deed, plays his pipe once more, coaxing the children to follow him out of the town along a winding road, over a hill and eventually into a long tunnel. It leads to a place where the honey bees have lost their sting. This last detail I always remember. It seems to linger with me, the tunnel, the honey bees that don’t sting. I keep picturing all the children in line in the darkness and then emerging into the light at the other end. There are flowers and trees and the warmth of sunshine and these marvelous bees. 

Sometimes, when I lie awake and the hall light is off, I worry that I’ll hear that strange alluring music, that I will disappear into that tunnel. It is in the dark of that bedroom that I discover how dry my lips can get, the existence of uneven spaces between my teeth, the clutching pain of stomach cramps before vomiting. It is the darkness of that room that sheds on me the light of discovery. 

P.S. I have written before about sharing your love and your life with someone, even if they are dying. Don’t be afraid. 

 

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

Magic Lake
Photo by Elena Shumilova

I wonder if some of the generations below us have decided that we are too old to dream. Because it is not so. There must be something in the DNA of humans, something lying fallow in our makeup that periodically blooms, grows, takes us over. We dream, we plan, we live. We go on living. Sometimes it’s hard to work toward those dreams. Sometimes the very act of dreaming provides us with solace. At our core we all have some vision that we aspire to, that we lean toward, that we encourage in ourselves and in our children and families. This blog features a woman, a mother who used her camera to bring the sense of dreaming into focus, and writers whose words build on dreaming, visions and a sharp understanding of life.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, on understanding death. “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, thoughts on laughter. “It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it . . . so I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.”

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, on yearning for the spiritual. “What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello? We spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we’re blue.”

Dr. Seuss on dreams. “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

Vincent van Gogh on dreaming. “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.”

___C.S. Lewis on dreaming. “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

___Lewis B. Smedes on forgiving, which helps dreams come to life. “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, thoughts on writing. “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” And his famous last line from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Because we do beat on, we do dream on, we do keep going. A person very dear to me wrote me this in the flap of a favorite book: Your creativity is boundless, and now I have the chance to make sure you truly believe this about yourself. My creativity, if it is anything at all, is your gift to me, and I’ll spend my life trying to give it back to you. 

Those words truly are the stuff of dreams. But so is the Valentine from the person we didn’t expect to hear from or the endorsement on Linked In, the recommendation freely offered for whatever goal, job, dream we are seeking. We all need to hold each other up, to be a brick in the wall of the dream of the persons we care about. It’s just so true, We are all in this together. 

So I thank my brother-in-law George for sharing Elena’s photos today. Because they sparked the seed for this blog post and they are truly the stuff of her dreams. Now what is the stuff of your dreams? And how are you going to work toward those dreams? And who will help you, who will offer to place a brick in the wall of your dream so that it is strong and purposeful? Please share your dreams.

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

The Bunny photo by Elena Shumilova

See more of Elena’s photos hereAnd here.

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

The Sun