* Resources Listed at the End
In Reading I Become….
In the book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that ‘good reading’, involves surrender to the work in hand and a process of entering fully into the opinions of others: ‘In reading great literature, ‘ he states, ‘I become a thousand men and yet remain myself’.
The year was 1997. My husband Devin had been diagnosed with leukemia. We were living in the Northwest. Friends and family began sending books, tapes, CDs, on topics ranging from vegetarianism to golf. In the solace found in a bookstore, I came across a small book about a young sports writer who returns to visit with his teacher after that teacher is diagnosed with cancer and had progressed to the terminal stage.
My husband and I were engaged in our own battle with leukemia. We deemed our struggle an assured win, and were not intimidated by the reading of this book., thus began recommending the book to friends and family. They reacted surprised by the fact we would offer something struck so close to home.
But we didn’t view it that way. We felt the book was speaking for us. By now, you probably recognize that little tome, as Tuesdays with Morrie, which went on to inspire a movie and millions of supporters.
Through sharing Tuesdays with Morrie, we could offer a glimpse of our present life to others, allowing them to become individuals living in our brave new world of cancer.
But we also took comfort in that Mitch Albom could represent in words, what we were feeling inside. The impetus for our reading Tuesdays with Morrie was also derived from another quote about C.S. Lewis’ life, “We read to know we are not alone.”
I have always been a lover of books, from the time my mother would sit and read nursery rhymes from the Family Treasury of Children’s Stories, which sits on my bookshelf today. I learned from my mother not just how to read, but how to love reading.
I had moved away from that love until my early thirties, when Devin progressed through three years of his disease. In that time, we both did a lot of sitting. Reading became an escape, an exercise for the mind when the legs had no strength.
The Northwest was known for their bookstores, and I had occasion to pick up a few paperbacks prior to Devin’s treatments. I randomly selected David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, without knowing why. Later, a leading bone marrow expert would give me the raised eyebrow for reading this during Devin’s transplant, arguing I could certainly have found a more engaging read than Dickens. But I underlined this quote:
“It seemed to me so long, however, since I had been among such boys, or around any companions of my own age…that I felt as strange as ever I have done in all my life. I was so conscious of having passed through scenes of which they could have no knowledge, and of having acquired experiences foreign to my age, appearance and condition, as one of them, that I half believed it was an imposture to come there as an ordinary little school boy.”
This trove of paperbacks included Katharine Graham’s Personal History. Katharine Graham lead the Washington Post through the Pentagon papers and Watergate. Her awkwardness as I child, I identified with. Her tenaciousness as a grown woman, navigating the storms of a male world was admirable. She writes of her mother’s guidance in raising she and her siblings, taking them mountain-climbing.
I was immersed in her story at the time Devin was undergoing another round of treatment prior to a transplant.
“The fatigue of the climb was great but it is interesting to learn once more how much further one can go on one’s second wind. I think that is an important lesson for everyone to learn for it should also be applied to one’s mental efforts. Most people go through life without ever discovering the existence of that whole field of endeavor which we describe as second wind. Whether mentally or physically occupied most people give up at the first appearance of exhaustion. Thus they never learn the glory and the exhilaration of genuine effort.”
This next passage, from Love in the Time of Cholera, came to me as Devin was in the final stages, Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes, “Contrary to what the Captain and Zenaida supposed, they no longer felt like newlyweds, and even less like belated lovers. It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, any time and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.”
Though on the outside, I would have appeared to have nothing in common with any of these character. In these times, I became David Copperfield, Katharine Graham and those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels.
During Devin’s illness, the added reading, the time to immerse myself in other worlds, lit a new spark. I began to write, first as a task, a true past-time, to absorb some of the boredom that bounced off the walls in waiting rooms. Next, the words became news, an outlet to share, as David Copperfield had, experiences which none of our peers could possibly have known or witnessed, and third, as with Katharine Graham, it fast became a second wind, a way of life.
As I wrote in greater length and frequency, I achieved a depth that could only come through repetition, a flexing of the writing muscle. In these deeper waters, I experienced a peace that only came by putting words on paper. For had I said them aloud, in our little family of three, a toddler and husband on pain medication, the words would have floated away, but on paper, each sentence carried weight, anchored me. And I went from being a reader, to a writer, and experiencing writing from the inside out.
I was also realizing when one uncovers a gift, the gift is to be shared. We had gained many insights through Devin’s cancer and we were adamant they be revealed if not through his life, then through my words.
When my husband lost his battle with cancer, I discovered an organization called Women Writing for a Change, founded 20 years ago, by Mary Pierce Brosmer, a former English teacher, who recognized women often needed a safe, supportive environment in which to write and share their stories. I brought my evolving manuscript to those writing circles, which held my words and confidences. Six years following Devin’s death, I would publish my memoir, I’ll Be in the Car.
During that time, I did not read much. I did not want to veer from the voice I had exposed. I did not want other writing voices to interfere with mine. I was finally hearing myself speak from the inside, and through that, was embracing life.
Fast forward to present day. I am in what the media terms the sandwich generation.I call it of the big mac variety or club sandwich, with the extra bread in the middle. Remarried, raising four young adults, overseeing the care of aging parents, and maintaining focus on my vocation and self-care.
When I was asked to speak here, Pam mentioned the topic of reading and writing and summer diversions. I began pulling books off my shelf and my nightstand. During that effort I rediscovered the three books mentioned earlier. As I examined that stack, and the recently read pile I was creating, the common threads remained the same. I am drawn to reading books that resemble my life.
For instance, several years ago, I initiated a writing circle at the Alois Alzheimer Center, a seed planted from experience with my mother’s disease. As that work progressed, my focus on fiction and non-fiction related books on Alzheimer’s remained steady. Still Alice was written by Lisa Genova. The author is a neuroscientist, and she has written one of the most accurate portrayals of early onset Alzhiemer’s, as well as characterizing family reactions to the disease. I also find the read fascinating, as she is able to translate her scientific knowledge into fictional world. Another book I enjoyed along the same lines is Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin, told from four viewpoints of daughter, son, husband, mother. Not only was I drawn in by the mother’s disappearance, but the author’s ability to capture four narrators in this novel. Other works in the Alzheimer category are Myth of Alzheimer’s by Peter Whitehouse., which offers plenty of statistics on misperceptions of a cure for Alzheimer’s and the ignorance about care, as well as The Forgetting: Alzheimer’s Portrait of an Epidemic, by David Shenk, a straightforward, humanistic look at the disease.
I also work with a non-profit called Starfire, and create writing opportunities for young adults with developmental disabilities to write. As I immerse myself more into this new landscape, my students find poetry particularly attractive and accessible, esp. helpful is the volume Beauty is a Verb – The new Poetry of Disability. When I ask students what topic they want to address in writing, sometimes they list dogs or family or sports, but always, they want to write of their disability.
Kenny Fries Excavation:
Tonight, when I take off my shoes:
three toes on each twisted foot.
I touch the rough skin. The holes
where the pins were. The scars.
If I touch them long enough will I find
those who never touched me? Or those
who did? Freak, midget, three-toed
bastard. Words I’ve always heard.
Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words
I was given.
Recently published books I have read include –
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (tolls). This I happened to discover through an Amazon’s “if you like reading this, then you will like this too.”
Christmas had been descending upon me, and I found a book where I could escape, to the 1930s boardinghouse, young women beginning to work, to envision a life not in the home. Jazz, coming of age, Manhattan, mysterious love interest. You will fall in love with Tinker Gray and wonder what ever happened to him. And too, I am rivted by male authors writing from a woman’s point of view.
Death comes to Pemberly was written by P.D. James, a mystery novel writer who is 91.
Her best known hero, the detective Adam Dalgliesh, is a man. When asked what it has been like being, as it were, inside Adam’s head for the past 47 years PD James responded: ‘Well, he is a male version of me. Brainier than me but his emotions are mine. The empathy is mental rather than physical. I never describe Dalgliesh getting up and getting dressed.’ When asked if she was like her hero, unsentimental? She replied, ‘Yes, I’m very unsentimental. Very.’
She wanted to combine her love of Jane Austen, with crime novel interests, and at 91 wrote Death Comes to Pemberly, where the Pride and Prejudice’s character Elizabeth Bennett, who had wed Fitzwilliam Darcy on the large Derbyshire estate, becomes the scene of a murder.
My intrigue at PD James’ age drew me into this novel, and also set me on a path of re-engaging with Jane Austen, perhaps giving her a second look, as I had done with Dickens years before.
Another favorite was American Dervish by Ayad Ahktar. I have a daughter pursuing Near Middle East & Muslim studies. And recently, WWFC co-sponsored a play culled from stories of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
A young Pakinstani American boy is charmed by his aunt, who comes to stay in his family’s household in America. The aunt’s presence is, at first celebrated, but the customs of the old country and gender discrimination bring about many challenges for the family. It is one of many books being read, as insight into cultures we so rarely appreciate except from the point of terrorism or war. Here is a quote:
“Hayat, her intelligence has been the curse of her life. When a Muslim woman is too smart, she pays the price for it. And she pays the price not in money, behta, but in abuse.”
Finally, I have to give a nod to historical fiction. I discovered Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon while listening to a podcast about Mallon. Henry and Clara is a story of the couple who sat in Lincoln’s box at the theatre the night he was assassinated. We never learned in history class about the collateral damage this event brought on this couple. You will find Clara a headstrong determined woman of Washington, and in Henry, you find compassion for a man who never knew if he did the right thing that fateful night.
Waiting in the wings. One book that I am itching to read by Jonah Lehrer: Imagine: How Creativity Works. In it, Mr. Lehrer advocates that creativity is not limited to those with a gift, there are certain processes individuals can utilize more effectively to become creative. He also describes blue-colored rooms which foster creativity and proposes that the urban setting is a prescription for creativity and invention due to the “proximity of all those overlapping minds.” As writer, this book has piqued my interest, as well as the fact that I will be moving to Over the Rhine, in a year so, when the home we are reconstructing is complete. We are moving for the very reason the author states, “the overlapping minds.”
Before closing, I want to offer information for those who might be interested in a jump start of your writing life. At Women Writing for a Change, we believe everyone has a story to write. The practices of WWFC, including small groups, time divided equally, development of listening skills through tactful feedback, were created to invoke, inspire and improve upon writing, without fear of criticism or embarrassment.
For the first few classes of WWFC, I was sharing material full of raw emotions over the death of my husband, and guilt in being the one left behind. Like reading a book where I identified with the characters, each writing circle where I participated, the women identified with me, and likewise, I with their stories. Together, ordinary women embarked on journeys to write of their extraordinary lives.
I have put flyers on the tables, listing upcoming classes, samplers, mother-daughter workshops. You can access our website for these listings and others.
I want to end with a poem, by Mary Oliver. Mary Oliver was born in Ohio. Much of her poetry is rooted in nature, in part due to her raising in Ohio.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Thank you to Pam Nothnagel for inviting me here today. Thank you for lunch, for listening. I hope you take the summer, to read other’s words, to put your own words on paper, and take the time to imagine, perhaps in a blue room, who is it you will become in your reading of books, who it is you want to become in the writing of your words?
Fairfield Women’s Luncheon, April, 2012
Books Referenced Today:
1. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
2. A Personal History by Katharine Graham
3. Love in the Time of Cholera, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
4. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
5. American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
6. Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James
7. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin
8. Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon
9. Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
10. The Myth of Alzheimer’s by Peter Whitehouse
11. Forgetting by David Shenk
12. Beauty is a Verb – The New Poetry of Disability
13. Swan by Mary Oliver
On My Wish List:
1. If Walls Could Talk: A History of the Home by Lucy Worsley
2. Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
3. A Book of One’s Own by Thomas Fallon
4. Island of Vice by Richard Zacks
5. Gods without Men by Hari Kunzru
Other Books Recommended:
1. Tabloid City by Pete Hamill
2. Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace
3. American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
4. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
5. Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson Canino
6. Freedom Writer’s Diary by Erin Gruwell
1. Mercantile Library of Cincinnati – Author Series
2. Public Library of Cincinnati
3. Book Review New York Times – Podcast
4. Poetry Foundation
5. IllBeintheCar.com / ThreeArchPress.Com