The other night my husband finished Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and felt he now needed to read something "light." What could I recommend? Well…. while I dip into good mysteries now and then and, in fact, am waiting for the latest Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear to arrive on my doorstep, and I will be at the bookstore the minute the new Louise Penny mystery is released in August, most of my reading, fiction and nonfiction, is not particularly light.
The two books I am recommending today would not be classified as light, although one of them is written in a lighter, almost breezy style. Both confront tough issues of living and dying and both have a great deal to contribute to how we choose to face our lives in crisis and loss.
We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying by Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer http://www.weknowhowthisends.com grew out of broadcast conversations on Minnesota Public Radio. Wurzer interviewed Kramer who was diagnosed with ALS in 2010. He died at age 59 only weeks ago just as the book was released. If I happened to have the radio on when one of those conversations was aired, I found myself stopping in the middle of whatever it was I was doing. I actually pulled into a parking lot once so I could listen without distraction. This is a man who not only accepted this horrendous diagnosis, but deepened his living. He also widened his connections through these broadcasts and his blog Dis Ease Diary https://diseasediary.wordpress.com and now this book.
Kramer explores in this book how we are all "dis eased." We each carry dis ease in some aspect of our life, whether it is disease or some other trauma or unexpected change in the life path we think we can control.
We are taught that dis ease is easily managed by the
right life, the right beliefs, the right partners, the right
jobs, the right nationality, the right possessions, the right
dreams. We are told that dis ease is easily held at bay.
Avoid disease, and the dis ease spawned by the very act
of living does not have to exist. Until we experience disease
we don't know how bounded, how delimited, how inadequate
are our abilities….Disease takes you to the precipice of
horror. Dis ease offers beautiful vistas of hurt and healing
and hope…Dis ease gives us choice. We can awaken and
pay attention to the entire narrative, or we can deny and
pretend unawareness. pages 31-33
I was moved by so much in the book, but especially by one chapter, "The Tell." He writes about telling family and friends about his new status, about the diagnosis of ALS. As he tells people about his disease, he discovers the "dis ease experience is not just in the teller but also in the told." So much can be revealed by how someone reacts to what they are told. Have you had the experience of revealing something painful in your life and the person told shares pain and sorrow in their own lives? Kramer responds with a generous heart.
…we humans carry our past, present, and future pains and
joys, hopes and fears just underneath the veneer that
we present to the outside world. Truly, it has been like
traversing an archaeological dig, with each Tell a
personal story illuminating the human condition. It has
been a gift of privilege and healing. p. 42
As I read this book, I vacillated between underlining each time I felt myself expelling a quick "oh" or "ah-ha" breath or reading without stopping, needing to be with Kramer on his journey of choosing life while dying, needing to learn as much as I could from this man who lived beyond bravery into grace and awareness. I will read this book again.
You may know Alice Hoffman as the author of a long list of novels for adults and also for young adults. I loved her books, Illumination Night, Second Nature, Practical Magic, Here on Earth, and many others. A prolific writer who happens to be a survivor of breast cancer, she wrote the book she needed for herself. "I need to know how people survived the trauma. The book is Survival Lessons, http://alicehoffman.com a small book that echoes her main learning from her own experience.
There is always a before and an after. My advice,
travel light. Choose only what you need most to
see you through.
The chapter titles are instructive: "Choose Your Heroes," "Choose to Enjoy Yourself," "Choose to Plan for the Future," "Choose to Make Things Beautiful," "Choose to Give Into Yourself," "Choose to Be Yourself." In the chapter "Choose How You Spend Your Time," she encourages us to revisit the stories we loved as children, saying we will love them even more now.
Sometimes I think we can learn everything we need
to know about the world when we read fairy tales.
Be careful, be fearless, be honest, leave a trail of
crumbs to lead you home again. p. 33
Hoffman wrote the book as a reminder to herself of the beauty of life.
There were many times when I forgot about roses
and starry nights. I forgot that our lives are made up
of equal parts sorrow and joy, and that it is impossible
to have one without the other. This is what makes us
human. This is why our world is so precious. I wrote to
remind myself that in the darkest hour the roses still
bloom, the stars still come out at night. And to remind
myself that, despite everything that was happening to
me, there were still choices I could make. pages vii-viii.
Hoffman was diagnosed with breast cancer over fifteen years ago and continues to write, and Kramer lived with ALS for about five years before he died. If they had met, I wonder what they would have shared with each other and how they would have inspired and deepened each other. It seems to me, although their writing styles differ greatly (There are no brownie recipes or knitting instructions in Kramer's book.), I suspect they would have supported and reinforced each other's key message to live life with awakened awareness.
What have you read or heard recently that inspires you to live with awakened awareness? I would love to know.