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January 5, 2020

Reading : Books for Healing


During a few rough weeks this past winter, I found the most space and comfort in reading. Other than work and basic activities of daily living I forewent every other activity and chose solitary reading over most other interactions and events.  These books are pretty different from each other, an assembly of my needs that changed moment to moment.  Each book had a different personality and gave me something different. In this way, they are like people, which is my excuse for being a hermit recently.

The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
This is my favorite type of audiobook: very long and very funny.  It's 21 hours long and even though it was immediately funny and entertaining, it wasn't until about a third of the way through that I was emotionally hooked. It's Forrest Gump like in the way that it traverses the history of one country (Ireland), with a focus on the evolution of LGBTQ rights, through the narrative of one person. It does what I love most about fiction--show how much the life and feelings of one person can contain, and shares it with humor, understanding, and insight without judgment. When you get this attached to a character and his narrative, reading becomes immersive and it was helpful for me to fully enter someone else's world. It also presented a comforting approach to pain, confronting suffering with humility and laughter.

The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh
This book was the most directly comforting to me, and I felt substantially, tangibly better after reading it. I haven't read much actual literature on mindfulness, feeling like perhaps they would be redundant, but the few books I have read have always been excellent.  I don't think there was any concept in this book that was entirely new. But Thich Nhat Hanh has a way of unearthing the complexity of seemingly simple concepts.  At the same time, he distills down how to practice these principles in a way that makes them less intimidating and more feasible.  I particularly appreciated how he speaks in the first person, putting himself into the concepts that he espouses.  When he talks about the idea of inter-being, that there is no confined sense of self but that we are all part of the same substance, he gives an example of a man who rapes a young girl and murders her father.  He acknowledges that he is both the criminal and the victim, and uses "I" statements to put himself in the place of the criminal.  This really helped me feel less angry with all the forces that create injustice, that I'm not separate from those people.  It doesn't mean that we don't continue advocating for social justice, but that we remain connected and happy in the face of it.  He encourages being joyful in every moment not just as a source of happiness for yourself, but as a way to create positive energy for everyone.  It's deeply reassuring to think of your happiness as contributing to that of others; and that even in times of suffering and supposed helplessness, your capacity to feel joy can be helpful to others. He reframes death as a continuation, explaining how because we are all connected and transformed and re-manifested in one another and in our environment, nothing is ever lost.

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon
This was basically a mindless young adult page turner, which was helpful in distracting me from complicated thought rabbit holes.  I love good YA for its ability to advocate idealism when first coming to face with the notion that the world is complex.  YA reminds me of my high school self and essays I wrote about books like Pride and Prejudice when my thesis was that happiness comes from a balance between mind and heart.  Anyway, this was excellent YA with a charming heroine, Madeline, whose integrity and idealism have been shaped by a sickness that keeps her inside at all times, isolated from the outside world.  Until she falls in love with the cute boy next door (I found the romance equal parts sappy and believable).  I really enjoyed the nuanced whimsy of this love story which is really about Madeline's evolving perspective on what her life is and should be.  Until the end, which I hated, but would still recommend this as a beach read or when you're in need of idyllic diversion from difficulty.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Broadly, this incredibly well researched book is about the migration of blacks from the South to the North from 1915-1970.  Specifically, it is about three individuals who leave their homes in Georgia, Mississippi and Florida for new lives in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It's hard to read about the extent of blatant and subtle racism that drove blacks from the South, and continued in different forms in the North. It's unlikely new to anyone, but the book so skillfully details the depth of racism alongside the personal assault of it. And it's likely new to consider how this migration has shaped everything about our society and community now. In particular, it's challenging and important to see how African-Americans became immigrants in their own country. Recent events have made me re-evaluate what I'm doing in work and life, and reading about people forced to move to attain basic needs reminds me of my privilege of choice.

The Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
At a time when I'm searching for the roots of trauma to better know how to heal, I so value the perspective of an adolescent discovering the spectrum of human feeling and capacity. In this story of Junior, a teenager who leaves his Spokane reservation to attend an all-white school, Alexie encapsulates the angst of your average teenager within the specific challenges Junior faces. Here prejudice and hurt assume many faces, and so does generosity and growth.  I love how a young voice, with his honest language and telling drawings (Junior is a cartoonist), with its first experience and anticipation of the future, can offer so much more insight than lifetimes lived.  Also, it is very funny.

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