I follow Anna Quinlen on Facebook. As I’ve mentioned before, she’s one of my all time favorite writers and human beings. She doesn’t post that often but when she does, it’s usually to make reading suggestions, many times to promote other women writers.
A day after President Trump announced his intention to take the United States out of the Paris Agreement, she posted, and one of the books she suggested, you’ll find on the list below (Saints for All Occasions). But it was what she said in summary that I think is worth quoting here:
Because reading is what unites us and saves us from the darkness, no matter what form the darkness takes and how inexorable it seems to be.
When I am in dark times, I turn to books. Here is the story of the last two months told through my reading list.
Love Warrior, by Glennon Doyle Melton
I did not want to read this book. I liked the author’s first book enough. Enough to finish it, but not enough to enshrine it on my “changed my life” book shelf. My mom kept mentioning that she was reading it. I didn’t bite. It was only when she sent me a specific passage that I accepted it. I was going to read this book.
I would not have predicted it at the time, but a good friend was dying. I had no road map for the days and weeks ahead. I didn’t know how to approach the pain and suffering that he and his family were going through.
When the universe bangs a message over your head, it’s time to listen. My mom sent me this passage from Love Warrior:
I read that passage over and over again in the days that followed. I shared it with friends who were also standing by as witnesses. I inscribed the words in my heart. I kept showing up without agenda, only as a witness. Finally, I went out and bought the book. My friend died. I stayed in bed and read the whole thing.
The author shares her journey of pain, mainly through the lens of her marriage. It was the reminder I needed. We all have pain. Pain is tricky, because it’s our wound and our strength. But we can still love one another the best we know how by simply showing up. Most of the time that is all we have to offer.
Good for feeling a little less alone especially if you’re going through a hard time or suffering.
Designing Your Life, How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
A friend gave me this book back in the fall. She knows that I’m a sucker for self-guided, life-strategy stuff. But, every time I picked it up over this past winter, I felt guilty. Since my friend had been diagnosed with Stage 4 renal cancer in November, life seemed to be on hold. It felt wrong to be designing a well-lived, joyful life when someone else was fighting every day for any kind of life at all. The book sat untouched for months.
Then once he had died, the pendulum swung the other way. It seemed irresponsible to not read this book and squeeze out every moment of whatever remains of my life. It was promoted to the top of my reading pile.
When you’ve read every “change your life” book, it goes to say that you’re not easily impressed. But, this book had some highlights.
One exercise I found simple but effective. Keep a journal of what energizes you and what drains you. Move yourself away from the things that drain you. Do more of the things that energize you.
Obvious, yes, but also good when you’re feeling a rut whether it’s in your career or personal life. Sometimes just paying attention a little bit, stepping outside of your habits and routines and being a little bit more aware, can snap you back to where you want to be.
There was also another exercise that provided me some helpful direction and motivation: Odyssesy Planning 101. Make three different paths for your life over the next 5 years. Think about not just your career path but your personal goals as well. Draw out what these three different version of your life look like.
I’m a big believer in this type of visioning exercise. What I liked about this version, is that it wasn’t just about career but approached things more holistically. And, it gives you a framework to measure your plans against each other.
I didn’t feel like I had all the answers when I finished this book, but it did help my refocus on some forgotten goals and recalibrate my path.
Good for when you’re looking to jumpstart your passions and career through some honest self-reflection.
Hallelujah Anyway, Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott is who I want to be when I want to grow up. (After Anna Quinlen of course). I’ve read all of her non-fiction books, and her vulnerability and wisdom have been a salve for my soul in the last few years.
This wasn’t my favorite book of hers. Maybe because I bought this book out of desperation. I was looking for the magic potion that would ease my heartache. It didn’t. Expectations might have been a little unrealistic. But, there is one passage that I keep returning to.
The folding and unfolding of the soul. The origami of the self. How we fold ourselves in and out and around to fit in certain areas. And when we do that, gunk gathers in our creases. Life requires that we unfold ourselves, shake out the wrinkles, let the stuff that’s gathered in the creases fall away.
Reading Anne Lamott is always an exercise in soulful discovery. She speaks the truth about things that we know in our heart, but don’t always have the courage or words to say.
Lamott reminds us that we are all broken and suffering, but there is opportunity for forgiveness, redemption, and grace. For those of us brushing up against the hard things in life, it’s a comforting message.
Good for connecting to faith when you can’t see past doubt and the messiness of your own humanity.
The Girls, A Novel by Emma Cline
On Fridays during the summer, my husband works half days. There is a short, magical window where he has Friday afternoons off and the kids haven’t finished school yet. On these Fridays, we try to meet for lunch, and reconnect at the end of a busy week.
One recent Friday, I was tired and unmotivated and wanted to stay home and read. Somehow reading doesn’t feel quite as slovenly or escapist as staying home to watch television. But, after a very rainy spring, the sun was peeking out, and I got off my butt and made it to lunch.
I had a lovely glass of sparkling rose, good conversation with my husband, and made my way to our local bookstore where I book binged. If you don’t have a local book shop, my condolences.
One of the books that caught my eye that day was The Girls. I remember when it first came out last year, and there was a lot of mixed buzz. Now, that it was in paperback I added it to my growing pile.
Set in northern California in the 1970’s, The Girls is the story of a teenage girl’s desire to fit in, to be a part of something. Overtaken by loneliness, her yearning for connection leads her to a latch on to a group of older girls who just happen to be running around with a wannabe Jesus cult leader. Things get interesting from there.
This is a book about the end of innocence, but also about the intense yearning we all have to be a part of something.
Good for tapping into teen angst and escaping into Northern California of the 1970s.
Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan
In this novel, two sisters immigrate from Ireland to Boston in the late 1950s. When the younger sister ends up pregnant and the already married father of the baby leaves her, the older sister takes in the baby to raise as her own. And so the secrets begin.
Reading this book made me think about the lengths we go to protect people in our families from what we think will harm them. But all that protection results in secrets that often brew resentment and pain.
It also reminded me that no matter the amount of time passed or the depth of the hurt, you can decide to turn back towards the people that you turned away from. Reconciliation. With each other. With God. If we open ourselves up to the possibility and stop living from a place of fear, we can heal.
Plus, I’m a sucker for a book that takes place in Massachusetts. If you’ve ever lived in Massachusetts like I have, maybe you get this. It’s like watching the movie Manchester By The Sea. It taps into a nostalgia for a place that you didn’t even know that you had. This book was a little bit of comfort in an intolerably wet spring.
Good for satisfying cravings for deeply layered, multi-generational family drama wrapped up in Catholic guilt with a dash of New England.
Option B, Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Don’t let the title fool you. This is a book about grief.
Everything in me did not want to read this book. Who wants to read a book about grief? Not even the grieving it turns out. My friend who’s husband had recently died, politely declined when I offered to buy it for her. ‘No problem,” I said. “I’ll read it and let you know if it’s worth checking out.”
So, I read it.
If you don’t know the premise, Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame and the COO of Facebook, co-wrote this book about grief in the years after her husband unexpectedly dropped dead from a heart attack.
Here’s the deal. If you are one degree removed from grief or are supporting someone experiencing grief, I would recommend reading this book. There isn’t anything in it that is going to blow your mind. But it does have some practical insight into what grief looks and feels like on a daily basis.
It hasn’t changed the way that I see my friend or how I support her, but it does give me a few more talking points than I had before. It points out the classic missteps like, “Don’t ask, ‘How are you doing’?” and “Saying the generic, ‘Let me know what I can do to help; is beyond unhelpful.”
These are not new information for someone who has been following closely along cancer’s path. But, it is helpful to normalize the things you are feeling as a caregiver to someone with grief and to better understand what they are going through and what to expect.
I’ve never been in this situation before, losing a friend so quickly to a horrible disease. I’m surprised how much of my own shit I have to process. I’m shocked by the depth of my own grief, and sometimes I feel unentitled to feeling as crappy as I do. Plus, I am trying to be a good friend which looks very different on any given day depending what life is dealing out. And when I’m not thinking about it, or tuned into it, on top of everything else, I feel guilty.
Needless to say, there are a lot of layers. And sure, this book helped. The way that it helps to read the instructions to an IKEA bookcase after you already put it together. It becomes obvious that there are places you screwed up, but there’s nothing to be done at this point. All you can do is hope that with time, you’ll get better at building bookcases and do your best not to make the same mistakes again.
Good for anyone playing a supporting role to someone experiencing grief and the aftermath of unfathomable loss.
That my friends was my spring, told through books I read.
Now, on to summer.